The Portland Timbers are headed to the MLS Cup Final.
In an imperfect but impressive performance befitting an imperfect but impressive season, the Timbers came out of Toyota Stadium with a 2-2 draw that propels them to their first cup final since 1975.
For 60 minutes the Timbers did largely what they came to Dallas to do: squeeze the Hoops and look to break. And for their efforts, the Timbers were rewarded with a 1-0 lead in the game that put them up 4-1 on aggregate with half an hour to play.
For all intents and purposes, the series looked all but over. But five bad minutes and FC Dallas goals from Ryan Hollingshead and Blas Perez put the Timbers’ punched ticket to the Cup Final into serious question.
But a heroic block from Nat Borchers and a stoppage-time Lucas Melano goal ensured the historic series win.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ glorious draw in Frisco:
1. Was that Diego Valeri’s best performance of the season?
If Sunday is any indication, Diego Valeri is back.
It hasn’t been an easy year for the Timbers’ talisman. After working his way back from a torn ACL suffered at FC Dallas in the final game of 2014 and making an immediate impact upon his return, Valeri suffered a badly sprained ankle against Toronto FC that set him back another month.
And since then Valeri’s form, while still good, has been a notable step off from his 2014 domination.
Not on Sunday. Valeri was brilliant.
The thing to look for here is not the number of chances created (a pedestrian-for-Valeri four), but the number of attacking passes the Maestro completed into the final third (by my count 13). And there were the innumerable others that helped the Timbers in transition.
Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara dominated the game during the period that the Timbers had it under control.
But make no mistake, when the going got tough and FC Dallas started throwing numbers forward, Valeri got going, repeatedly prying open the undermanned Burn backline and giving the Timbers multiple chances to put the game away. It looked for a while like the his teammates wouldn’t accept Valeri’s repeated invitations, but in the 95th minute Lucas Melano was more than happy to send in the Timbers’ RSVP for MLS Cup.
As great as the Timbers’ fall rise has been, until Sunday Valeri was the one missing ingredient. And if he can carry his late-game performance against FC Dallas into MLS Cup, the Timbers stand a very, very good chance of earning one more win in 2015.
2. Why did the wheels start wobbling after the hour?
The obvious answer - and there is certainly a lot of truth to it - is that FC Dallas started throwing numbers forward. As Taylor Twellman pointed out repeatedly during the game, it was no coincidence that the Hoops made their run shortly after Tesho Akindele came on for Victor Ulloa (pulling a number out of a deep-lying position and moving it up top) and immediately after Blas Perez came on for David Texeira (giving the Burn an aggressive goalmouth threat).
As a result, the Timbers backline dropped deeper and the defensive midfielders (which, at this point was basically all of the Timbers’ midfielders) were forced to track runners. The beneficiary of this: Mauro Diaz, who was ineffective for the first hour but dominant thereafter.
Like Valeri’s map, the importance here is the number of passes completed into dangerous areas of the field. In the first hour? Basically none. After the hour? At will.
This is something to keep in mind for MLS Cup. The Columbus Crew’s 4-2-3-1 is equally suitable for pulling a defensive midfielder in favor of a fifth attacking player, pressing numbers toward the box, flattening out the Timbers’ midfield, and letting Federico Higuain boss the newly open midfield spaces with multiple attackers crashing the box.
So if the Timbers go up in Columbus, don’t be surprised to see the Crew take a similar approach. And hope the Timbers handle it better next week.
3. Will Liam Ridgewell and Fanendo Adi be available for MLS Cup?
The biggest uncertainty for the Timbers coming into the second leg in Dallas was the availability of Ridgewell after he came off in the first leg with a flare up of a chronic calf issue. As it turned out, Ridgewell wasn’t even available for selection on Sunday as the calf issue lingered into this week.
Ridgewell Watch, therefore, will continue for a second week.
Whereas Ridgewell was (and has been) competently spelled by Norberto Paparatto, the Timbers suffered an potentially more significant injury in the latter stages against Dallas when Fanendo Adi came off with a lower-leg injury after a red-card-worthy challenge from Kellyn Acosta. Although Maximiliano Urruti is a good player in his own right, Adi’s holdup play and finishing have been two of the biggest factors in the Timbers’ renaissance.
Simply put, whereas missing Ridgewell for MLS Cup would be far from ideal, losing Adi for the final would be a devastating blow to the Timbers’ chances in Columbus.
Unfortunately we didn’t get any update after the game on either player’s status, so any news will have to come during the week.