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Playoff logs: The new playoff format makes this a different kind of postseason

The Portland Timbers are back in the playoffs. But the tweaks to the playoff format will impact how they navigate the postseason this time around.

Kris Lattimore

Welcome to the Playoff Logs, where we take a look at the important or overlooked narratives surrounding the Portland Timbers during the playoffs, however long they last. This week, the spotlight is on the new MLS Cup format: the pros, the cons, and what it means for the chances of another magical Portland postseason run.

After months of anxiety-ridden uncertainty, the Portland Timbers finally punched their ticket to the MLS Cup playoffs. Considering the emotional roller-coaster that this season has been, the fact that Portland is in the postseason again is decidedly worth at least a bit of celebration. But if Portland wants to mark this season a definitive success, they need to finish it off with a strong run in the playoffs.

Now, I know that Portland has done this before. Just last year they put together a riveting run to the MLS Cup Final, and the circumstances seem similar to now. In 2018, Portland was a low seed, had to play the most pivotal matches on the road, and wound up embracing their underdog status. In 2019, Portland is a low seed, will be playing probably all of their playoff games on the road, and looks primed to be the underdog. Same stuff, different season, right?

Well … not exactly. The MLS Cup Playoffs in 2019 are a brave new world. There have been important changes to how the newest iteration of the postseason will play out, and the changes may significantly impact the final fate of the Portland Timbers.

You most likely know them by now, but here are the big format changes:

  • Gone is the time of two-legged playoff series. Each round is now just a single elimination game, played at the home field (or baseball diamond) of the higher seed.
  • The away goal tie-breaker is eliminated.
  • Reseeding has been eliminated as well. The bracket is set.
  • The playoffs are happening earlier, and will be played over the course of just four weeks. We’ll know the 2019 MLS Cup champs before Thanksgiving.

The MLS Cup Playoffs are now in effect a condensed cup competition. With that fairly significant change in format, navigating the postseason this year will be a different beast than in years past. Some of those changes may help Portland … and some of them may hurt them.

How the Changes Help

Every game is a final, right?

The new playoff format makes things very straightforward for the Timbers: Win and move on. Survive and advance. Portland stands just four victories away from lifting a trophy, and the simplicity of the competition means that all the team and coaching staff need to do is focus on is the game in front of them. No more balancing the home and away legs — just win the next 90 (or 120) minutes.

That also means gaining momentum in playoffs may pay greater dividends than in seasons past. “Momentum” has always been a ubiquitous x-factor to playoff runs before, but its impact may now be felt to a greater extent. With fewer games, there’s an increased pace and urgency to the playoffs this year. We’ll know who the MLS Cup finalists will be before Halloween, so if you’re a team that can turn in two solid performances in quick succession, you already have the proverbial wind at your back.

This benefits the Timbers because they’re kind of already in “playoff mode.” The game against San Jose was functionally a play-in game for the playoffs, and Portland put in a playoff-caliber performance. So their confidence in knowing that they can perform when it matters the most is already high, and they’ll be backing themselves going into a very winnable matchup against Real Salt Lake. So you could argue that Portland is already picking up valuable momentum.

And the momentum will lend itself to the fact that Portland will be playing almost exclusively on the road, which in turn lends itself to the fact that Portland gets to play exactly how they want to play.

Portland wants to be a team that gets out in transition, and rely upon the individual skill and brilliance of their stars to go create goals. They are comfortable with letting the other team have the ball, win it back in a key area, and then find one of Diego Valeri or Sebastian Blanco or another talented attacker (which, since it’s autumn, includes Dairon Asprilla) in transition.

And where Portland has shown that style of play the most often is on the road:

That goal in Portland’s last away game showcases a lot of what the Timbers want to do in the attack: Go direct as soon as the ball turns over, and then find the player in the best position to make a play (Loria, then Blanco, in this case). Home teams in MLS can generally be relied upon to be the ones to control the majority of possession and the ball, and Portland should be perfectly content to let the game come to them, and then look to be lethal in those transition opportunities.

The fact that the Timbers will be playing away means that they can truly settle into that above identity. The Portland Timbers will really only need to be one thing to be successful in the playoffs — and that is the best version of themselves.

How the Changes Hurt

In the two seasons Portland has reached MLS Cup, they were the lower-seeded team during the two-legged series portion, the true heart of the previous playoff structure. In both of those postseason runs, Portland was able to play for a favorable to good result at home, and then ride out the second leg. The new playoff structure does away with all of that, and I’d argue that winds up being a potential disadvantage.

In 2015, it was Portland drawing Vancouver 0-0 at home, and then taking advantage of Vancouver’s need to win outright to score two goals and advance. It was also punching Dallas in the mouth to the tune of 3-1 at home, and then riding out a furious attacking storm to draw the second leg 2-2.

In 2018, it was Portland gutting out a solid 2-1 home win against Seattle, and then actually losing the second leg 3-2 after extra time, and then forcing penalties due to away goals. And it was putting up a solid 0-0 draw against Sporting Kansas City, and then going to Kansas City and grinding out a draw for 99 minutes, only getting the outright win at the very end of stoppage time.

In 2019 … it has to be an outright Portland win. There’s no chance to win and then hold on, no chance to take advantage of away goals. You could make a decent argument that being a lower seed in the previous playoff structure was the more preferred position, because of the tiebreakers and the right to host the first game and know exactly where you stand going into the second leg. The Timbers sure made it look that way. But all of those above advantages are now a thing of the past.

Yes, playing solely on the road means Portland can play as their preferred tactical identity. But not having the chance to dictate the rhythm of the series overall could wind up biting Portland, due to the all-important “chaos factor” of single-elimination games, which has been cranked up to a whole different level in 2019.

One-off games have the chance to be unpredictable, and now the playoffs are nothing but one-off games. Any moment that alters the course of a game is amplified in a single elimination tournament: a red card, a random deflection, a mistake, a VAR-assisted dubious penalty call (oh man, one of those is definitely going to happen, isn’t it). All of those small but pivotal moments now can decide not just a game, but an entire season.

We have literally seen results for the Timbers be affected like this. There was the end of the game against New England in September, the league loss against Minnesota in August, and the no-call against Dallas back in April, to name just a few. Dropping a result in those games sucked. Now imagine how much it would suck if the end of those games was the end of the entire season. That’s what the new format of the playoffs could potentially produce. And with the luck that Portland has had this season … the odds that they avoid something like this are not kind.

So … are we cup bound or not?

Ultimately, the fact that Portland is even in the playoffs is significant. You don’t have a chance to win unless you’re in the big dance, and there were a few weeks in September where it was looking real wobbly. Based on the relative parity in MLS this year (outside of LAFC), the Timbers stand as good of a shot as anyone to make it to the final.

But I would caution against expecting another run like last year. The structural changes to the playoff format inherently mean that this postseason will look different than before, so it will be hard to use the past as precedent for forecasting what will happen. The change in format means that the playoffs are now a sprint rather than a marathon, and that shifts the focus for how teams will tackle each matchup and how each game will unfold. The Timbers may still find themselves living on the knife’s edge, where they advance via shootouts or last-gasp goals. But it will come after a frantic 90 or 120 minutes, not a 180 or 210 minute war of attrition.

Maybe the new format creates too many variables for the Timbers to overcome, and this playoff run tragically ends before it can really begin. Or maybe Portland can still embrace its identity as a gritty counter-attacking team, and fight like road warriors all the way back to the final, new format changes be damned. If there’s one thing that remains constant about the playoffs this year, is that they are as predictably unpredictable as ever. There’s no one who can say for sure how the next four weeks are going to play out. So as fans, let’s all just sit back and enjoy the ride, however long it lasts.

Or, we can just all decide to accept the inevitable and embrace Dairon Asprilla as our playoff lord and savior, as he guides the Timbers to the promised land by scoring golazo after golazo.