The Portland Timbers are one point behind the Vancouver Whitecaps with a single game remaining in their season. If the Timbers can bridge that gap in tomorrow's match against FC Dallas, then the hope of getting into the playoffs for the second time since joining MLS remains alive. Dallas, however, have a bye week to play for as they try to secure the 3rd place spot in the Western Conference with a win this week.
The Timbers are unbeaten in their last four league matches and have posted their best-ever road record since joining MLS, but they will be up against a fierce test this weekend: first in Dallas, then in waiting for the result from the Vancouver Whitecaps' match against the Colorado Rapids. The Timbers need to take more points than the Whitecaps this weekend in order to squeek by and get into the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the only way in which the Timbers control their own fate is if they lose, which would eliminated them from the playoffs outright. If they take one point or three, the Timbers will be waiting on the conclusion of the Whitecaps' match, which will have just started (viewable on MLS Live) as the Timbers' game wraps up.
Despite the Timbers' recent league form, they are coming off a disappointing 3-1 loss to Honduras's CD Olimpia, which knocked the Timbers out of the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League by the slimmest of margins: away goals.
The match against Olimpia saw several players who have been key parts of the Timbers' side that has only lost once in the last two months drastically under-perform. Most notable was Liam Ridgewell's ineffective 90' in the center of the Timbers' defense alongside Norberto Paparatto, who has been his partner for the last several matches but who will be suspended for the final match of the season due to yellow card accumulation.
Other expected first-teamers who played against Olimpia on Tueday include Jorge Villafana, Rodney Wallace, Ben Zemanski, Diego Valeri, and Darlington Nagbe, none of whom covered themselves in glory. Valeri was perhaps the most effective of the Timbers' players on the night, but without the rest of the players around him functioning at anything close to his level, even he did not look very good.
Making the drop off against Olimpia all the more surprising was the quality of play put for in last weekend's gripping 0-0 draw against Real Salt Lake.
Which Timbers team will show up tonight is of vital importance to the Timbers' playoff chances. Dallas is too strong an attacking team for the Timbers to show the sort of weakness that plagued them against Olimpia. Instead they will need to be the team that looked able to shut down RSL for 90' and who were only held back from taking the full three points by some ferocious saves from Timbers-bane Nick Rimando.
If the Timbers are going to raise their quality back up to the level that we have gotten used to over the last several weeks, then their efforts are going to have to start with their midfield. Although the defense managed to concede early and often against Olimpia, it was their performance in the midfield that put, and kept, the pressure on the defense to start with.
The pairing of Ben Zemanski and Diego Chara, however, should be a big jump up from the pairing of Danny O'Rourke and Ben Zemanski. When paired with O'Rourke, Zemanski was forced to be the more adventuresome of the Timbers' holding midfielders. It may have payed off with a somewhat-fluky goal, but Zemanski looks better as a defendsive midfielder. Luckily, when he is paired with Chara, that is exactly what Zemanski is asked to be.
Chara, unleashed on the field, is a turnover creating machine in a way that Zemanski, or Will Johnson for that matter, will never be. He pops up wherever needed and provides a speedy transition into the attack in the way that no other Timbers' holding-mid can.
One year removed from an epic flameout that saw them finish 8th in the Western Conference, FC Dallas have transformed into a team capable of beating just about anyone.
The turnaround has not been without its hiccups, there was a four game losing streak to follow up their five game unbeaten streak to start the season, but for the most part Dallas has bounced back from whatever is thrown their way like a true veteran side.
That many of Dallas's biggest contributors are youngsters, several of whom were signed as Homegrown Players, makes their season even more impressive. Players like Tesho Akindele, who has come on strong late in the season with several clutch performances, and Victor Ulloa, who has the fourth-most minutes for Dallas this year from his spot in the midfield, have shown what quality HGP signings can add to a team.
The youngsters from outside the Dallas Academy system are making a big impact as well. Third year defender Matt Hedges has put in a borderline Best XI performance at centerback and leading the team in minutes played, while forward Fabian Castillo has transformed his game from run-run-run-lose-the-ball to run-run-run-make-a-goal-happen.
Still, the old guard in Dallas have had their say in how this season has played out. The wily Blaz Perez is Dallas's leading scorer for the third year running. Coincidentally, it is Perez's third year with Dallas. Also showing up big for FCD this season is defensive midfielder and occasional fullback Michel, whose dead ball skill has netted him an impressive eight goals this season.
Dallas have not quite spread around their scoring to the same extent as the Timbers have over the last two years, but what they have spread around is their assists. While there are ten players who have scored for FC Dallas this year, only four of whom have more than four goals, there are thirteen players with an assist registered.
This is all in keeping with Dallas's ability to spring the attack from just about anywhere on the field. With Perez, one of the best hold-up forwards in the league, and a corps of young, quick attacking midfielders behind him, the ways that Dallas can break down the pitch and get into the attack are legion.
That said, for a team with ambitions of a top three finish, Dallas has been left vulnerable at times by their defense. Although nowhere near the defensive regression that the Timbers went through at the beginning of 2014, Dallas has not shored up their defense to the same extent as they have improved their attack.
With the trio of Zach Loyd, Jair Benitez, and JeVaughn Watson filling in at fullback and being asked to push forward into the attack, Dallas have proven vulnerable down the wings at times this season. If they Timbers' wide players can get it together, attacking the wide spaces could open up the Dallas defense. Of course, with Wallace coming off a rough showing against Olimpia and Nagbe coming off a rough season in the attack in general, how that works out remains to be seen.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 5:30 PM PT at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas]
Portland Timbers: 11-9-13, 6th place in the Western Conference
FC Dallas: 16-11-6, 4th place in the Western Conference