After their 4-1 win over the Colorado Rapids to finish out the regular season, the Portland Timbers have managed to claw their way all the way back into third place in the Western Conference despite a slow, injury riddled start to the year. The Timbers enter the playoffs in 2015 with a record of 15-11-8, the team's most wins in a season since joining MLS, including the Timbers' Western Conference winning season in 2013.
With ten goals scored in the last three games -- almost a quarter of the team's 41 goal output this season -- the Timbers are coming into the playoffs with as much momentum as anyone in the Western Conference. All season the knock against the Timbers has been their lack of finishing. With Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri on the pitch, the Timbers never lack for chance creation and now, with more than just leading scorer Fanendo Adi getting on the scoresheet, the Timbers are finally starting to convert those chances at a rate that should put them in a good position to advance.
If the Timbers want to advance past the play-in round, however, they will need to get through Sporting Kansas City.
After a strong season that, at times, had SKC in the mix for the Supporters Shield, Sporting dropped off in recent weeks, stumbling twice in losses to the San Jose Earthquakes and the Rapids before wrapping up their season with a 2-1 win over the LA Galaxy that just assured them of the final, 6th place playoff spot in the West. Of course, given the packed in nature of MLS, that sixth place spot is only two points back from the Timbers all the way up in 3rd.
Looking back, SKC will be ruing not taking their chances against the Timbers when the team was struggling earlier in the season. Although the last match between the two teams ended in a 1-0 win for Sporting, the previous two were both 0-0 draws that saw keeper Tim Melia stand on his head to keep the Timbers off the board while Kansas City wasted what few chances they were able to create in turn.
All of that history, however, will likely mean very little as the Timbers now bare very little resemblance to the Timbers then: the team is scoring goals at a 2014-esque clip, the midfield is clicking in a way that it has not been able to for much of the season, and the Timbers have even been running out a different formation, one focused on and flowing through a single pivot midfield, rather than the balanced double pivot the Timbers had favored since 2013.
Still, the Timbers have yet to face a truly stiff test since this metamorphosis began; Sporting at its core is a team that refuses to lay down and die and the Timbers' recent, massive victories have come about at least in part because the Galaxy and the Rapids did just that. If SKC can get their players healthy and their mentality right, they will prove the stiffest test for the Timbers since the last time the two teams met.
There are plenty of tests to come if the Timbers are going to make a run at the MLS cup, but as we have seen over the last four years, the Timbers are a team that can beat anybody in the league and lately, when it is time to do or die, the Timbers have had a strange habit of rising to the occasion. Whether it is playing lock-down defense or picking apart ten players packed in behind the ball, the Timbers have found a way to rise to the top.
Of course, there can be only one team at the top of the heap come December. The Timbers could lose their scoring touch as quickly as they found it, they could stumble on the road as so many teams have this year, they could come up against at team that is just a little more on than they are. All of these things have happened to the Timbers this year and they could happen again.
But they won't. *knock on wood*