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

The MLS Cup Finals is just 90 minutes away...

Bennett Dewan 2018

The Story So Far

Sunday night, the Portland Timbers came out and earned a draw. Although there were plenty of chances to put away the match, it just couldn’t be done. It was like they were lacking that final something to get them over the hill and put the match to bed. Sporting Kansas City came out with a slightly different plan and, for the most part, it didn’t work well. The Wiz are usually a very good team in possession, but on Sunday they sat back farther and allowed the Timbers to come to them. Because of that, the Timbers edged the possession-heavy SKC — 50.7% to 49.3% — but the slight edge wasn’t enough.

Both teams couldn’t seem to finish their chances, and the result was a very chippy and bruising 90 minutes that ended in a stalemate. Chara and Valeri were able to keep themselves out of the book, though Larrys Mabiala went down with an ankle injury.

Now it’s time for the Timbers to get the job done in a brutally cold Kansas City. While it’s not expected to snow, the temps will be in the 30s by first kick. Can the Timbers complete their run to the Cup with a win in KC? Or will Sporting find a way to dispatch the Timbers?

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Giovanni Savarese knows that the road to the MLS cup runs right through Children's Mercy Park and, most likely, Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The Timbers still need to pull off a win on the road, though the last time they were in Children’s Mercy Park (back in August) they were beaten soundly 3-0. I think the team has improved a lot since that loss.

I hope that the Timbers put this particular tweet up in the locker room.

So you’re saying there’s a chance?

The Timbers actually have a better shot at it than NYRB, and that tickles me pink. But alas, once again the Timbers have been cast as the underdog headed into this second leg. I do believe that the Timbers relish being the underdogs — always overlooked for the flashier teams in the league — but they get it done day in and day out.

What to Watch for

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

Sporting KC vs Portland Timbers Leg 1

Ahh, the friendly confines of Children’s Mercy Park.

I’m sure that Peter Vermes and team are ready for some home cooking and will try to swat the Timbers back to Portland. I wouldn’t expect too many lineup changes. The only change I see will be at center-forward — swapping out Shelton for Diego Rubio, who is done sitting out his yellow card accumulation suspension. Rubio is far more dangerous than Shelton is, and he will be a nuisance to the Timbers center backs.

Will Vermes have the Wiz sit back like they did in Portland? Or will they be back to their normal selves, keeping the ball from the Timbers? The Timbers have no problem sitting back and hitting on the counter, which is something they’ll will no doubt be prepared for. I wouldn’t expect anything less than a 4-3-3, which is their bread and butter; they’ve used only one other formation this season and only once (4-1-4-1).

Their main problem was finishing the chances they were given, which worked out well for the Timbers. SKC’s passing in the final third was just 67%, and in the attacking half it was 66%. Hell, they were only 75% passing overall on the night. For whatever reason, when it came to the attacking third, they had issues trying to make space and take shots. While SKC had nine shots on goal, only one was on target.

Look for them to push for that opening goal and not take their foot off the gas. It could be just like leg one with a lot of back-and-forth action.

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

Portland Timbers vs Sporting KC Leg 1

Coming into Thursday’s match, Giovanni Savarese’s Timbers have yet to score on Sporting Kansas City. I know that wasn’t the stat you wanted to read, but here we are. However, the Timbers have been scoring goals in the playoffs and on the road. They have the confidence to go into hostile territory and put the ball in the back of the net.

They’ve done it before, why not now?

It’ll be interesting to see what formation Gio sets out on Thursday night. He’s favored the 4-4-2 on the road (recently), though the 4-3-2-1 has been getting the job done. Samuel Armenteros, Andy Polo and Larrys Mabiala are all listed as questionable for Thursday night’s match. Also, do Valentin or Powell get the start at right back? Gio’s been known to swap Powell for Valentin when it comes to short turnarounds, so I’m not sure if four days would count towards that. Also, will Mabiala be ready to go Thursday night? (I’m betting not.) The most likely scenario is that if Mabiala can’t go, then Bill Tuiloma will step in alongside Liam Ridgewell, who could be playing in his last match in green and gold.

I’m wondering if Gio sticks with the game plan from leg one, where he had Villafana pinch in almost into the midfield, which seemed at times to screw up the KC defense enough that the Timbers became dangerous. I could see them doing this again. Also, if Powell starts, they’ll most likely do it from both sides. While that can leave that wing exposed, Villafana at least looked like he could handle it; Powell, on the other hand, I’m not so sure.

Log Slices

Pressure, what pressure? Giovanni Savarese was asked if he feels pressure after a first leg draw against Sporting KC.

“I don’t see it as what kind of pressure. We have to go there and try to get a win,” Savarese said. “We have to go there with the mentality that it’s one game, like it is in the regular season, and we have to go there to try and get a win. Prepare the plan, prepare the players to make sure that we get there, recover a few of the guys that today were not available and then make sure we go there to win.”

The Timbers had 14 shots on goal in the first leg; amazingly, they were split down the middle, with seven shots from open play and seven from set pieces. Now they just need to convert some of those shots to goals, something they failed at in the first leg.

El Maestro, Diego Valeri, created seven chances in the first leg. He’s the ninth player since 2007 to create more than seven chances in an MLS playoff; the last player to do it was Sacha Kljestan in 2016. Now, the Timbers really need to capitalize on his creative ability in the second leg.

The Timbers had a passing problem Sunday night in the attack. They completed just 62% of passes in the attacking half, and in the attacking third, they managed just 60%. This will obviously need to improve on Thursday.