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Portland Timbers at FC Dallas Playoff Match Preview

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Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers have a 3-1 lead over FC Dallas going into the second leg of the two teams' home and away series in the MLS Western Conference Finals.

With two goals on their opponents, the Timbers have a strong head start in this one, but Dallas have been the league's strongest home team over the course of 2015, ending the season with a 13-2-2 record at home and coming back from a one goal deficit to advance past the Seattle Sounders in the Conference Semifinals. Of course, the Timbers are no slouches on the road, holding the best record away from home of any of the teams remaining alive in the playoffs.

While Dallas will remain mostly unchanged in their approach to this match, the Timbers will need to take a long look at their lineup as a trio of potential changes hang over the team.

Liam Ridgewell, the Timbers' captain in the absence of Will Johnson and a significant building block of the team's strong defensive performances this season, was forced out of the first leg of the series due to soreness in his leg. Ridgewell's condition appears to have persisted throughout the week, ultimately leading to a quote from Caleb Porter tweeted out today by MLSsoccer.com's Dan Itel, saying that Ridgewell is still touch and go and that Norberto Paparatto will likely get the start.

While it was Paparatto who was beaten for Dallas's lone goal in the first leg, less than a minute after coming in for Ridgewell, his pairing with Nat Borchers has been a steady one this year. While the quality of opposition faced by him may have something to do with it, the Timbers' back line has only allowed one goal in the five games that Paparatto started in 2015, winning those games by a combined score of 8-1.

Where this will change up the Timbers' game plan is in the team's distribution out of the back. Paparatto is far from a bad passer and has a surprising range of vision, but he can occasionally overplay his passes and give up possession as a result. Ridgewell and Borchers are far from perfect in their passing, but their giveaways tend to be balls lumped down the pitch, while Paparatto's tend to be on low and controllable balls that are at a far greater risk of being picked off by pressure from opposition attackers.

Of course, if the Timbers play a disciplined possession game, while seems like it might just be the case, Paparatto will mostly be asked to give the ball to the Timbers' central midfield trio, regardless of how that is lined up and who might be in it.

Last weekend that central threesome was comprised of Jack Jewsbury as an out and out defensive midfielder, Diego Chara given free reign to shut down the center of the pitch, and Darlington Nagbe pushing forward as a not-quite a No. 10. Now, however, Diego Valeri is back and available for selection after serving his one game suspension for picking up a pair of yellow cards over the course of the first three playoff matches.

The return of Valeri will likely see the Timbers shift back to the set up that we were just getting used to seeing before his suspension, with Chara as the defensive midfielder, Valeri pushed forward in the attack and orchestrating things from the center of the pitch, and Nagbe playing the box to box role of the shuttler, holding possession and getting the ball wherever it needs to go.

Brining Valeri back in removes a decidedly defensive piece in Jewsbury and places more of a defensive burden on Nagbe. Previously that might have been a scary prospect, but these days Nagbe has shown that he knows how to use his speed and athleticism to break up plays and win the ball and can be a real contributor on the defensive end of the pitch. Valeri, meanwhile, will create opportunities for the Timbers; it is what he does. Despite missing a third of the season, Valeri was still the Timbers' leading assist man and will be vital to breaking through a very strong Dallas back line -- something that has been much more difficult to do in Frisco than anywhere else.

In addition to Valeri and Paparatto, there is one more player who could be back in the Timbers' XI for this match: Rodney Wallace. Wallace just keeps working his way back into the Timbers' starting XI and, after also serving a one game suspension for yellow card accumulation, he might just reclaim his spot out wide on the left from Lucas Melano.

Wallace and Melano bring significantly different things to the Timbers' left flank: both players are athletic and a handful for any fullback to deal with, but their respective approaches to the game vary greatly. Melano has a decidedly attack-first mentality to his play as he looks to push forward and cut in behind the back line, something he did to great effect against Dallas in the first leg of the series. On defense, Melano puts in the effort, but has less of an understanding of what is required of him. Wallace, meanwhile, is in many ways the opposite: bringing a strong defensive understanding and preferring to stay wide and provide an outlet in the attack rather than cutting inside.

Which player the Timbers put on the pitch tomorrow will greatly influence how they approach the match against Dallas, giving the team two very different potential approaches.

Match Information

Watch it on: ESPN

Kickoff: 2:00 p.m. PT at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX

Leg 1: Timbers 3, Dallas 1