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Storylines: Portland Timbers vs Sporting Kansas City (Western Conference Finals 2018)

The Timbers are 180 minutes from MLS Cup

MLS: Portland Timbers at Sporting KC Peter G. Aiken

The Story So Far

Fish: Gutted.

Celebrating on their pitch: Priceless.

While it might have taken penalties to sort out the Western Conference semi-final, the right team walked away with the win. It’s now been just about 15 days since the Portland Timbers took to the pitch - an international break being the cause of the two-week gap in matches. Lucky for the Timbers, their players who were active during the break (Villafana, Polo, Flores) have returned without injury from international duty.

Paris of the Plains

Peter Vermes and his team finished atop the West when the music stopped, and now they’re only 180 minutes from an MLS Cup final. They’ve still got business to attend to before that can happen, and one team stands in their way: the Portland Timbers. If the regular season matchups are any indication of what’s going to happen, it could be a wild two legs.

SKC battled to a scoreless draw in Portland, and then put the hurt on the Timbers with a 3-0 drubbing, handing the Timbers their third loss in eight days in the regular season. SKC has lost just once to the Timbers in their last 10 regular season meetings, and add to that a record 8 shutouts in those meetings.

According to Vermes, he looks at this two legged affair as completely different than their last two regular season meetings. Vermes sees the Timbers as a different team come the Western Conference semifinals.

“I think they’re a better team,” Vermes told Kansas City’s Sports Radio 810 WHB. “It’s your objective as a coach to peak at the end, and I think they’re doing that.”

I dare say he’s right. These teams were in two different places at the time, but even though the Timbers caught on just when they needed to, they will still play underdog to Vermes’ squad.

What To Watch For

Sporting Kansas City (18-8-8, 62pts)

Sporting KC vs Real Salt Lake (Western Conference Semifinals)

Sporting Kansas City made quick work of Real Salt Lake on their way to the Western Conference final. They’ll go with what brought them to the dance: Peter Vermes will deploy a very effective and dangerous 4-3-3. They have three players with double digit goal tallies, Johnny Russell (10), Dániel Sallói (13) and Diego Rubio (10). Speaking of Rubio, he’s come on form as of late and has displaced Khiry Shelton as the starting striker. Though, Rubio is suspended for this first leg because of yellow cards, so Shelton could start up top.

SKC thrive in possession, 54.6% on average, which is good for second in the MLS behind New York City FC. Beware of their counter press to get the opposition to cough up the ball, then they work it through the middle of the pitch. So only look for them to swing it out to the wings (which are very good) if they can’t get anything going through the central locations.

They’ll work the ball around trying to get the Timbers out of shape, especially when trying to counter the Timbers’ block in the midfield. The way Sporting Kansas City does this is by switching the point of attack, making the Timbers move side to side and thus creating space by pulling them out of their shape.

Portland Timbers (15-10-9, 54pts)

Timbers vs Sounders (Western Conference Semifinals)

In leg two of the Western Conference semifinals Gio Savarese decided to move away from the 4-2-3-1 that’s seen a lot of success lately and instead used a classic 4-4-2 in Seattle. Will that be the case on Sunday? I don’t know, but it’s going to be one of the two. Both have their good and bad, though it seemed Seattle was able to expose the flanks, something the Timbers defenders are going to have to be looking out for.

The Sounders really focused down the left, knowing that it was the weaker side, Namely that Villafana had some issues with the speed they had down the wing. And this wasn’t just focused on Jorge, they went after Powell down the right as well and he didn’t really cover himself in glory. The difference from the Seattle Sounders to Sporting Kansas City - is that SKC really like using the middle of the pitch. They rely heavy on through passes, trying to break lines and get Rubio on goal by splitting the center-backs.

The best plan for the Timbers is to sit back, lure SKC in, and get past the press by finding outlets in Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco. That’s been the Timbers’ overriding philosophy this season and I see no reason to deviate from that.

As far as injuries go for the Timbers, David Guzman and Samuel Armenteros are listed as questionable, though both have been back to full training. Guzman, who has been valuable in the 4-3-2-1, will most likely start over his deputy Andres Flores. Armenteros will most likely be part of the backup brigade as I see no reason to shake things up. Ebobisse has earn his minutes and I don’t see the situation changing just because Armenteros is healthy.

It will also be interesting to see who gets the start at left-back, with Villafana playing 90 against England and 15 minutes against Italy which was on Tuesday. I would probably go with Villafana on the left, Valentin on the right.

Log Slices

Four players are in yellow card suspension danger: Liam Ridgewell, Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and Andres Flores could all miss out on the second leg if they pick up a yellow during Sunday’s match, so keep your fingers crossed.

The Timbers have now participated in three conference finals (2013, 2015, 2018), and are one of only three teams to do so, the others: New York Red Bulls and the Seattle Sounders.

In three MLS Cup Playoff games in 2018, a total of four different players have tallied at least one goal for the Timbers (Dairon Asprilla, Sebastián Blanco, Jeremy Ebobisse, Diego Valeri). Portland’s four different goal-scorers are tied for the most scorers by a single team in the playoffs in 2018.

Valeri has a goal or an assist in each of the Timbers first three playoff matches in 2018, tallying his seventh career playoff assist in the second leg against Seattle. His seven assists are the most playoff assists of any active MLS player. In Valeri’s last eight playoff games, he has three goals and six assists.

In 15 playoff matches the Timbers are lifetime 7-4-4, scoring 25 goals. That’s a goals scored average of 1.67, which is the fourth highest in MLS.

Since MLS returned to the two-conference playoff format, the 2018 Timbers are just the second Western Conference team to score two or more goals in each of its first three matches of a single postseason. The only other Western Conference team to accomplish this was the 2013 Timbers.

(Stats provided by Portland Timbers and MLS)