The Cascadia Cup has come to the MLS playoffs.
With the Portland Timbers having outlasted Sporting Kansas City in a grueling penalty kick victory on Thursday, the Timbers are now set to take on the Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS Cup Semifinals starting with the home and home series first leg tomorrow.
That quick turnaround has been all anyone can talk about in Portland as the Timbers, who finished in third place in the Western Conference, come into their match on Sunday with less rest than the 4th place Seattle Sounders will have in their Sunday afternoon match against FC Dallas. The turnaround is exacerbated, of course, by the fact that the Timbers game against SKC went the distance, forcing the Timbers to play an extra half an hour on tired legs.
With all that in mind, the possibility of squad rotation has been brought up, but it is most likely a non-starter. While Caleb Porter has certainly not been averse to changing things up, that has generally not been the case following a win. Barring some extenuating circumstances, like the still-unlikely return of Diego Chara, don't expect any changes for the Timbers in this one.
Regardless of how the Timbers line up, this match will be a difficult one. While the Timbers have generally done well against the Whitecaps since joining MLS, this year the Timbers ended the season with an 0-1-2 record against the 'Caps -- the same 2015 record that the Timbers had against SKC before Thursday. Just like in their matches against SKC, the Timbers have gotten their chances against Vancouver, but have been frustrated in their finishing despite outshooting the Whitecaps 15-13 and 13-7 in their first two meetings this year.
Playing against Vancouver, the Timbers have been frustrated this year by the stellar -- if aggravating -- play of Kendall Waston and Matias Laba, the defensive spine of this Whitecaps team. Waston, one of the league's top centerbacks, is one of the few players that can physically man up on Fanendo Adi without being absolutely controlled by the Timbers' big man, while Laba is consistently one of the best ball winning and distributing holding midfielders in the league.
Laba in particular is an interesting player for Timbers fans. After a 2014 season in which Laba was a great pickup for the Whitecaps but was repeatedly demolished by Darlington Nagbe like few other players in the league, 2015 saw Laba step up in a big way for the Timbers, thwarting a Diego Valeri-less side in the first two matches of the year and preventing Nagbe from dominating games like he did in 2014.
Despite the presence of those two, tomorrow's match will likely come down to the Timbers' ability to control the center of the pitch. While Nagbe or Valeri have done well in many of the Timbers' matches this year since Valeri returned from the injuries that sidelined him in the first half of the season, the Timbers will need both players to step up in this match in order to overcome the strong Vancouver spine.
Equally importantly, if the Timbers can control the ball, and the possession, in the center of the pitch, they will let their fullbacks get up the field and get involved in the play more often, helping to pin back the speedy attacking players that Vancouver has out wide.
Watch it on: ESPN
Kickoff: 2:00 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 15-11-8 in the regular season, 3rd place in the Western Conference
Vancouver Whitecaps: 15-11-8 in the regular season, 2nd place in the Western Conference