On Sunday night the Portland Timbers put themselves in a strong position from which to advance to the MLS Cup Final with a 3-1 win over FC Dallas in the first leg of the Western Conference Final.
The storyline coming into the game was supposed to be the Timbers trying to manage this first leg in which they were missing Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace on account of yellow-card accumulation. But those who expected the Timbers to be conservative had a surprise in store, as Portland came out of the gates firing to grab a first-half opener.
But it was a second-half stunner from Dairon Asprilla and some stoppage-time icing from Nat Borchers that have put the Timbers in a strong position heading into the decisive second leg.
The win is good. And the scoreline is very good, as the Timbers can advance with a win, draw, one-goal loss, or two-goal loss in which they score more than one goal. The Timbers, though, still have to get the job done in Frisco; a task that has proven difficult for them at times in Portland’s MLS history.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ 3-1 triumph in Providence Park’s 2015 finale:
1. Where did the Timbers win in the attack?
Answer: Dairon, Dairon, Dairon, Dairon, and Dairon.
Yes, he scored an incredible goal. But get over it.
Okay, don’t. Actually watch it on loop.
But let’s talk about other things for a moment. Asprilla was the key to unlocking the Hoops’ defense on Sunday, as the Timbers repeatedly found penetration on Asprilla’s right side.
But on top of the penetration that Asprilla provided, the young Colombian was a vital defensive contributor on the flank with Fabian Castillo blazing down the Burn’s left side. On Sunday Asprilla logged seven recoveries, a successful tackle, and interception, and countless instances of cover for Alvas Powell.
With Rodney Wallace out, the Timbers looked to be susceptible right where Castillo and Michael Barrios are so potent. Asprilla and Lucas Melano have shown some defensive ability over the course of their young Timbers careers, but neither have been consistent contributors on the defensive end. And if the Timbers couldn’t get defense from at least one of their wings, the game would have become very difficult for Portland to manage from a defensive perspective because the home side wouldn’t have had any direction that they felt they could funnel Dallas toward.
But Asprilla was up to the task on Sunday, providing enough cover for Powell to allow the Timbers to hold their own on the right and force the Hoops to look toward the Timbers’ stronger left side.
Asprilla’s performance is just another big moment in what has been an excellent late-fall for the winger. And if, as he showed on Sunday, Asprilla is going to turn into a consistent, two-way winger, he could become a more talented, faster, more powerful Rodney Wallace. And given Wallace’s value, that’s an exciting prospect.
Okay, go watch that goal again.
2. With Darlington Nagbe playing the way he is, where do you play him?
On Sunday evening Caleb Porter again handed the keys to Nagbe at the 10. The result: He was very good. At times spectacular.
Asked postgame about how to handle Nagbe going forward, Caleb Porter laughed: “That’s pretty easy; just play him and stay out of the way. I thought he was unbelievable tonight."
On one level Diego Valeri makes the answer easy; with one of the best 10s in MLS already on the roster, Nagbe’s fit into the team as an 8 is a no-brainer. And, without a doubt, Nagbe has been very good in that spot.
But what we’re seeing from Nagbe as a 10 right now is another level from what we’ve seen in the past; enough so that it’s hard to envision a future that doesn’t involve an appreciable number of appearances in an attacking role. Which, with watching Valeri’s innings count becoming a necessity as he gets close to 30 and George Fochive needing first-team minutes to develop, may not be a bad thing.
So, while Nagbe will likely primarily be an 8 going forward, don’t sleep on Darlington making frequent appearances at the top of the midfield. And if Sunday is any indication, that’s a very, very good thing.
3. How is Liam Ridgewell’s calf?
The most concerning moment on Sunday evening was when Liam Ridgewell came off in the second half with a calf injury. Although Norberto Paparatto has made some quality appearances over the course of the season (save, perhaps, for being culpable on the Timbers’ concession seconds after coming on), Ridgewell is a vital part of the Timbers’ spine that very much looked superior to Dallas’s on Sunday evening.
So the severity of Ridgewell’s injury will be a major storyline throughout the week, as the pairing of Ridgewell and Borchers hasn’t been in a goal-conceding mood lately. After the game, Caleb Porter was characteristically equivocal about Ridgewell’s status for next week, although he did state the injury was more of a lingering issue rather than a new acute injury.
Ridgewell, for his part, was more optimistic on Twitter.
Thanks for all the tweets. Calf is not to bad. Be ready for next week— Ridgy 6 (@liam_ridgewell) November 23, 2015
With Valeri and Wallace set to return from suspension, Ridgewell’s availability will be the major question lingering through the course of the week. And that question is that much more important considering the Timbers’ advantage up and down the middle of the field looking like it could carry them to MLS Cup Final.