Injuries plague Timbers' run to the top
On the surface, the odds favor the Portland Timbers in Sunday's MLS playoff match against the Houston Dynamo at Providence Park.
Portland has won six consecutive home matches and is 11-2-4 at home.
Houston won once and was blanked in nine of 17 regular-season road matches. The Dynamo scored only 12 of their 57 goals away from home.
And, unlike Monday's battle on the chewed up grass at Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium, the FieldTurf surface at Providence Park favors Portland's skill and preference for moving the ball with quick, short passes.
But after the teams played to a scoreless draw on Monday to open this two-leg series, the big question in Portland was: How can the Timbers make a serious run at the championship with so many key players hurt?
By the end of leg one, Portland's injury list included six players who are the top choice at their position: Sebastian Blanco, Darlington Nagbe, David Guzman, Diego Chara, Larrys Mabiala and Fanendo Adi.
The Timbers did just fine without Adi over their last 12 games — in fact they had scored a goal in 21 consecutive matches before coming up dry on Monday. But take away the escapability of Nagbe, the creativity and aggressiveness of Blanco, the ball winning and transition igniting of Chara and Guzman and the assertive defending of Mabiala and these cannot be the same Timbers who surged to first place in the Western Conference.
Portland coach Caleb Porter praised his team, rightly, for the way it responded to all those injuries at Houston. But unless at least a few players get well soon, it's not realistic to expect a championship run.
The good news? If the Timbers find a way to beat Houston on Sunday — and don't discount the energy of Providence Park — they will have 16 days to heal before kicking off the conference finals on Nov. 21 at Seattle or Vancouver.
Might this be one case where the quirky MLS playoff schedule — because of the annual November FIFA international window there is an idle weekend between the conference semifinals and finals — breathes life into the beat-up Timbers?
Because, while Portland has never had a deeper roster and can call upon seasoned veterans to fill key holes, the injuries (among them Blanco burning skin off the top of his right foot by spilling boiling water while cooking) would take the steam out of even the deepest teams.
Perhaps some of the infirm can be well enough to contribute on Sunday. Porter said Nagbe left Monday's game early as a precaution, and the coach sounded uncertain about the degree of Mabiala's hip injury.
But Chara, the motor in midfield, is out for the season after suffering a broken bone in his foot. Guzman's availability depends on the severity of the knee sprain suffered in the final regular-season game.
Then there is Blanco. The Argentine winger was ruled out just before Monday's match — Porter said he tried to go but had too much pain. The top of the foot is a fairly significant tool for professional soccer players so recovery by Sunday might be pushing it.
Given all that, the Timbers did well in the first leg to shut out a Dynamo team that had scored in 17 of 18 home games, including the knockout round.
Lawrence Olum and Amobi Okugo were strong defensively in midfield in place of Guzman and Chara. Roy Miller showed his experience by stepping in alongside Liam Ridgewell when Mabiala went down.
But if Nagbe and Blanco are missing on Sunday, scoring goals becomes a real challenge. As much magic as Diego Valeri has pulled off this season, the absence of both starting wing players would make it easier for the Dynamo to squeeze space from Valeri.
And Portland can't afford to be throwing extra players forward — at least until it has to — against a Houston squad that thrives on the counterattack.
Instead of a fast-paced battle, unless an early goal forces a tactical shift Sunday's game figures to be another chess match between Porter and Houston coach Wilmer Cabrera.
The equation is a bit trickier for Porter because matching Houston goals won't be good enough — if goals are scored and the game ends in a tie, the Dynamo advance.
Outside backs Alvas Powell and Vytas played excellent defense at Houston, stymieing the Dynamo's dangerous fast and talented wide attacking players at every turn.
n So far, the Western Conference playoffs have been a poor advertisement for MLS. The Vancouver Whitecaps, a counter-attacking team by nature, didn't manage a single shot on goal in the first leg of their series with the Sounders. The Whitecaps were the home team and did not look the least bit interested in entertaining the 28,000 fans who paid to watch.
Maybe that approach will be rewarded on Thursday, when the series will be decided at CenturyLink Field. But the away-goals tiebreaker does not serve its purpose — giving visiting teams incentive to attack — when the home team is more interested in defending than in attacking.
n At Houston, the lack of flow on Monday was in part a result of Portland's makeshift lineup. But horrendous field conditions didn't help. The field was so chewed up, players couldn't trust the footing enough to take creative chances or to consistently make quality passes.
Hard to know if the lousy field contributed to Chara's broken foot or Nagbe's hamstring issue (Mabiala was simply schooled by Alberth Elis and was injured committing a foul on the Houston forward). But the divot-speckled surface did not lend itself to scintillating soccer.
"I know they have challenges with regards to football playing on it, but it's not great in a showcase game like this with two attacking teams to have to play (on)," Porter said.