The Portland Timbers outshot their opponents 14 to 9, but could not find the back of the net in the first leg of the 2018 Western Conference Final. Settling for a 0-0 draw against Sporting Kansas City means that the Timbers will need to win or draw on the road in the second leg on Thursday if they want to advance to MLS Cup Final.
In a match that was destined to be a grind, the Timbers came charging out of the gates and looked to sneak an early goal. In the opening minute of the match, a ball flicked over the Sporting backline found Dairon Asprilla, starting in place of the injured Andy Polo, making a run to the end line. Asprilla brought the ball down, cut back around a defender going to ground, and sent a pass across the face of goal for the run of Diego Valeri only for Kansas City keeper Tim Melia to get down and stop the cross.
In the 6th minute, the Timbers came close again when Zarek Valentin got on the ball in space deep in the SKC end. With room between himself and goal, Valentin charged forward until he met resistance, then cut a ball back into the box for his arriving attackers. As it travelled through the box, the ball clipped a Sporting defender and spun away from traffic, only to fall to the boot of Jorge Villafana on the edge of the box. Villafana stepped to the ball and hit it first time, sending it flying back through traffic and on goal where it clipped the inside of the post and ricocheted away from goal.
With neither side willing to back down from a physical match, the pace slowed drastically as the teams traded fouls that prevented any momentum from accumulating. An even greater damper was put on the Timbers when Larrys Mabiala went down with an apparent leg injury in the 18th minute. Mabiala could not continue and the Timbers were forced to burn an early substitute, bringing on Bill Tuiloma to finish out the match.
The Timbers managed to wrest some control of the match back as the first half wore on, looking dangerous on a handful of breaks, but still struggling to find the final product.
As the half drew to a close, the Timbers were able to put together a series of chances off corner kicks and free kicks in the opposing half. First, in the 40th minute, a Diego Valeri corner found Jeremy Ebobisse at the back post where the young striker was able to steer a header toward goal, but could not put the power on it to challenge Melia. Then, in the 45th minute, Asprilla got on the end of a Valeri free kick into the box, but his header was directly to Melia. Finally, Liam Ridgewell was able to put a head to the ball off another Valeri free kick in first half stoppage time. Ridgewell’s was the most dangerous of the three attempts, but Melia was still able to lay out punch the ball away from danger.
Early in the second half, Kansas City found their best chance of the match so far, getting forward on a quick break down the pitch before finding Johnny Russell arriving at the top of the box. With a clear look on goal and the ball at his feet, Russell went for power over accuracy and sent his shot blazing over the bar and into the Timbers Army.
As the Timbers looked to reassert themselves on the match, Kansas City found a second chance of their own. After a ball sent into the box was into the Timbers box in the 56th minute, a hurried clearance fell to Sporting full back Seth Sinovic on the edge of the box. Sinovic trapped the ball before striking it on the volley and sending a dipping ball toward goal that Jeff Attinella saved comfortably.
In the 61st minute, the Timbers thought they should have been awarded a penalty when Jorge Villafana burst into the Sporting box with the ball at his feet before getting tangled up with an SKC defender and going to ground. Referee Robert Sibiga was quick to award the goal kick and did not change his call, despite consulting with the video assistant referee via his headset.
The Timbers thought they had finally gotten the opening goal of the match in the 71st minute off a Valeri free kick. Valeri’s curling ball into the Sporting box found Ridgewell at the back post and the center back headed the ball on goal where it bounced off the post and into the path of David Guzman for the tap home header. As the Timbers celebrated Guzman’s goal, however, replays revealed that both Ridgewell and Guzman were offside on the initial ball into the box.
Sporting came close in the 80th minute when Russell got on the ball wide on the Timbers’ left and cut inside across the top of the box. With enough space to squeeze off a shot around Diego Chara, Russell hit a curling ball toward the back post, but just barely overcooked the attempt and put it wide of goal.
The Timbers remained the more dangerous team on set pieces as the match ground on and in the 82nd minute they once again came close on a Valeri corner kick. As the ball dropped at the penalty spot, Tuiloma rose up out of the pack and hammered a header toward goal, forcing Melia to dive full out in order to snag the ball out of the air.
As the final minute of regulation wound down, Sebastian Blanco tried to put his mark on the match when he found himself in space outside the Sporting box and lined up a speculative shot from distance. Blanco’s attempt was on target, but Melia had its measure from the moment it left his foot and easily snagged the ball out of the air.
Just as it looked like the match might be over, Kansas City managed a final chance that had the Timbers scrambling. After a knocked down ball in the Timbers box fell to winger Daniel Salloi in space, the SKC player snapped off a quick shot with only Attinella between him and goal. With Attinella on his heels, Salloi looked likely to grab a last second goal for Sporting but for a last-second intervention from Ridgewell who came sliding in to block the ball away and preserve the 0-0 scoreline.
The Timbers must now head out on the road to play the second leg of the conference final in Kansas City on Thursday.