- Three years after enduring a famous playoff defeat in Portland, Sporting Kansas City went back and emerged with a scoreless draw, one it'll take back home for the decisive second leg of the MLS Western Conference semifinals.
Unlike in MLS's Eastern Conference, the Western Conference final is wide open heading into the second leg after the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City played to a 0-0 draw at Portland's Providence Park Sunday night.
Tim Melia made six saves, and Sporting KC withstood Portland's lethal counterattack, though it couldn't find an away goal, snagging the draw away from home before heading back to Children's Mercy Park for the series decider on Thursday night.
Here are three thoughts on a finely poised conference final:
Sporting Kansas City has the fine margins go its way
The last time Sporting KC had a playoff game in Portland, it had a potentially match-winning penalty kick hit off both posts and stay out before losing the PK shootout in 11 rounds, on final kicks taken by goalkeepers. In other words, by about the slimmest of margins.
Perhaps due one, the margins were in SKC's favor on Sunday, some three years later.
The first indication things might go SKC's way came in the sixth minute, when Jorge Villafaña hit one of the two posts rattled by Saad Abdul-Salaam in 2015. The second came when converted right back Graham Zusi timed his defending to perfection to prevent Diego Valeri from having a clear look at goal on the counter. Another major moment that went SKC's way came in the 71st minute, when David Guzman appeared to give Portland the lead. After a free kick, Melia's parried save hit off Guzman's head on the doorstep and went in, but a subsequent review correctly showed that both Guzman and Liam Ridgewell were both offside at the time the initial kick was taken. Three years ago, absent VAR, that goal would have stood.
Later on, when Villafaña thought he had a penalty shout, referee Robert Sibiga had none of it, waving play back on and again making the correct call–one that was in SKC's favor.
Not all of the close-call moments went SKC's way on the night. In the 47th minute, Johnny Russell blasted high off a 15-yard shot following a dummied ball that originated from Khiry Shelton, with the Scottish forward missing a golden opportunity to connect for the away goal.
On the whole, though, Sporting KC managed to avoid another nightmare trip to Portland and has plenty in its favor as it heads home.
Portland reacts well to early injury
Losing a starting center back is never easy. Doing so less than 20 minutes into a playoff game is even more daunting. Yet the Timbers survived an early injury to Larrys Mabiala, looking no worse for the wear in the process. Bill Tuiloma stepped in admirably and seamlessly, meshing well and helping the Timbers keep the clean sheet.
Tuiloma also nearly scored the series-opener off a corner kick, with only a sensational diving save by Melia keeping his header from hitting the back of the net in the 82nd minute.
Mabiala's availability for the second leg looks to be in serious doubt given how he had to be stretchered off the field, but Tuiloma's showing Sunday will help allay any worries for Giovanni Savarese and his staff.
The two sides of the coin
Both teams will feel confident of reaching MLS Cup after the first-leg result. For Sporting KC, if you win at home, you're through. Simple enough. SKC was 11-2-5 at home this season (regular season and playoffs combined), meaning 61% of the time, it got the result it will need Thursday to go through. A scoreless draw would send the series to extra time, where away goals will be taken out of the equation (something that Portland hopefully is aware of this time after the near fiasco against Seattle in the previous round). Sporting KC will also be getting Diego Rubio, who has 10 goals and six assists in the regular season and playoffs this year, back after he missed the first leg due to a yellow card accumulation.
Despite the disadvantage of going on the road, where Portland struggled to the tune of a 4-8-5 mark in the regular season, the options for advancement are actually plentiful for the Timbers. A win or a scored draw (in regulation) will send the Timbers back to MLS Cup, while a loss will send them home.
For what it's worth, in their two regular season meetings the teams played to a 0-0 draw in Portland and a 3-0 Sporting KC win in Kansas City. One element has repeated itself. The second remains to be seen.