The Portland Timbers and FC Dallas want far more than a victory Wednesday in the MLS playoffs. Each team has a history of success and has set MLS Cup as the ultimate goal. Without a victory Wednesday night in a knockout round match between the two sides, though, MLS Cup won't become a reality this year.
The contest pits a pair of teams that share some similarities. Each is comfortable without the ball, strong on the counter-attack and looks for opportunities to quickly transition from defense to attack to catch the opposition with fewer players back.
"I think you’re pretty right about how it’s going to go," FC Dallas center back Matt Hedges told Goal when asked about how the do-or-die contest might unfold. "Both teams like to counter-attack, both teams have good players capable of doing it. I think whoever executes the counter-attacks better will be the team who wins."
Timbers manager Giovanni Savarese says there are more subtle things that might separate his team from Dallas. While FCD's defense has been the hallmark of the team this season, the Timbers boss said his players will do well with the ball at their feet as they probe for attacking chances. There's also the mental aspect of facing an FCD team that lost its last three matches of the season, conceding in the second half of all three contests including in Sunday's game where a win would've meant FCD didn't have to play in this round of games at all.
"I think we are comfortable in possession, more than they are. I think they’re a little bit more direct than we are," Savarese told Goal. "They also in some way are frustrated with the fact that they’re coming into this game in a situation where they thought they were going to come in first or second, so they feel they have no business having to play this game. I think that could affect them mentally."
Another area where the teams might not be the same is fatigue. While FC Dallas coach Oscar Pareja put out a first-choice lineup Sunday against the Colorado Rapids in search of a first-round bye, Savarese elected to give his likely starters the day off. With the way the results fell, the Timbers might have been able to jump in the table and earn a home match in the knockout round, but the first-year MLS coach isn't regretting his choice.
"Even if we won the game, we couldn’t avoid playing on Wednesday or Thursday," he said. "Yes, we could’ve played at home, which would’ve been fantastic, but the reality is that it was not in our control, the possibility to be able to skip the game - not like Seattle, Kansas City, Dallas and LAFC - the four teams had the option by winning and some results going their way not having to play on Wednesday or Thursday." He went on to say he still felt the team he utilized Sunday could've won the match and with a potential first leg of the Western Conference semifinal coming Sunday, three games in a week would've been too much to ask from his players.
Recent struggles to finish and mistakes at the back have seen FCD's goal difference drop to +8, just two better than Portland's, something Hedges puts down to "losing our focus in the second half." That's why, for FCD midfielder Victor Ulloa, the little things will make the difference in who advances and whose season ends.
"I think it comes down to small details, set pieces, movements off the ball, it comes down to where we have to be concentrated on the full game in order to get the result," Ulloa said. "We’re in playoffs now, a new tournament. We’ve got to flip the page quick and take the responsibility that we have upon us and try to bring some joy to the fans that they much deserve."
With the margin so slim and such little turnaround time, both managers have a challenge in drawing up their game plans - especially against a counterpart they respect. Pareja said he's looking forward to matching wits with a talented tactician. "With Giovani, yes, he’s a great person and he’s had a really good season," he said, while the Timbers coach said Pareja is "somebody who pays a lot of attention to details. I think he’s a coach who is always competitive and has a team that can compete, has good players and they’re always difficult to face".
There's plenty in common and mutual respect between the managers, but only one team will be able to continue chasing the ultimate goal of lifting MLS Cup. Until another game exists, the focus for each team is fixed solely on the midweek clash.
"We have to make sure that we are ready for what we’re going to encounter tomorrow, that we have to battle, that we have to sacrifice, that we have to try to go through and then we think about the next game," Savarese said. "There’s no point in right now thinking about something that is still not there. We’re on a good path, but we have to battle tomorrow in order to get to the second game."
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