FC Dallas travels to Providence Park to face off against the Portland Timbers in the first round of the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
- Date: November 22nd, 2020
- Time: 9:00 PM CST
- Location: Providence Park, Portland, Oregon
- How to Watch: ESPN
Due to the abnormal and more localized MLS scheduling in 2020 caused by the coronavirus pandemic, this will be the first time that Portland and Dallas have faced off in 2020. Their last meetings were in the 2019 regular season, in which the clubs split their two games, both sides winning the home matchup. This playoff matchup will be the third time that FCD and the Timbers have matched up in the playoffs, with Portland winning the two previous matchups in the first round in 2018 and the Western Conference final in 2015. Dallas will be seeking their first playoff victory against the Timbers, as even in 2015 when the playoff series were two legs, Dallas was only able to come away with a 2-2 draw in the home leg, resulting in their elimination.
The Timbers enter the playoffs on a relatively strong run of form, with two victories, two draws, and only one loss in their final five games of the season. Portland will feel good about having the chance to host Dallas, even without their renowned fan support, the Timbers have only at home three times in 2020, with one of those losses coming all the way back in March on the opening weekend. Dallas has also historically struggled to win games at Providence Park, having only won in Portland once during their club-best 2016 season. The biggest concern for Portland will be mounting absences in their squad, with numerous key players missing through injury and international call-ups. But even with that in mind, Portland is certainly the favorite to move on to the Western Conference Semi-finals.
It may come as a surprise, but FC Dallas enters the playoffs with the best recent run of form, having won 3 of their last 5 and only having lost once. However, that loss was a devastating one as FCD dropped the final game of the season to Minnesota United. FCD only needed a draw against Minnesota to guarantee a home playoff game, and, with a win, could have finished as high as 2nd in the Western Conference, but a 3-0 loss on the back of a very poor performance sealed their fate and meant they would travel in round 1 as the 6th seed. Dallas has been poor on the road in 2020, only winning on two occasions, and in their one game on a turf surface, they lost to a poor Atlanta United side. Luchi Gonzalez and his team will hope to get back to what they were able to do in the penultimate game away to Nashville to avoid a third straight first-round playoff defeat.
Portland Timbers FC
This Timbers lineup is mostly unchanged from the side that finished the regular season with a 1-1 draw to LAFC, albeit with a few key differences. Defensive midfielder and regular MLS All-Star selection Diego Chara returns after missing the LAFC match due to yellow card accumulation and Jeremy Ebobisse returns to the lineup to start up top after missing several games with a concussion.
Andy Polo, who seems to have returned to Portland from international duty via a charter flight, gets the start over Marvin Loria on the right-wing. Portland are missing two regular starters due to season-ending injuries in Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Sebastian Blanco. Chilean international Felipe Mora may get the start in place of Ebobisse if he is able to return from his international duty in time and is deemed ready to start by head coach Gio Savarese.
The core of the defensive line is unchanged and is the first choice lineup, with goalkeeper Steve Clark having another under the radar but an extremely solid season between the sticks.
This is a mostly unchanged lineup, not from the team that lost 3-0 to Minnesota on the final day, but rather from the team that beat Nashville away 1-0 in the mid-week match ahead of the Minnesota loss. The only change from that lineup is the return of Franco Jara to the starting striker position in place of Ricardo Pepi, who had been filling in for Jara due to a training knock.
This lineup features Ryan Hollingshead, typically the starting left-back, at left-wing, continuing a Luchi Gonzalez playoff trend of playing fullbacks on the wing, echoing Reggie Cannon’s surprise start at right-wing against Seattle last season. In this case, Hollingshead moves forward to become more involved in the attack and makes room for Johnny Nelson, a more defensive player, at full-back. Bressan keeps his place ahead of Reto Ziegler at the back while Jesus Ferreira continues his run of games in midfield, dropping Andres Ricaurte back into more of a linking role. The rest should be no surprise with stalwarts like Matt Hedges, Thiago Santos, and Michael Barrios taking their usual spots.
If Luchi goes with this lineup, it will be both a gamble and a slightly conservative and pragmatic move and he could just as easily keep Hollingshead in his typical spot and start Fafa Picault on the left-wing, but something tells me Luchi is going to go with the same look as the Nashville game.
Keys to the Match
1) Do Not Concede Early
In last season’s thrilling extra-time playoff defeat to the Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas conceded two goals early in the first half, with Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris scoring at the 18th and 22nd-minute marks respectively. Dallas would go on to turn the game into the most exciting contest of the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, but they were never able to do anything more within the game than bring the score level and force extra time. In 2018, Dallas’ last playoff matchup with Portland, the Timbers scored a goal in the 23rd minute.
It may be a bit of a stretch to call those “early” goals, but regardless, Dallas has not had a great deal of success coming back from deficits, whether in 2020 or otherwise. Dallas struggles mightily to break down a packed-in defense and an early concession would allow Portland to fall into that kind of game and play extensively on the counter, where they excel. If Dallas is forced to start chasing the game early in the first half, it may turn into an ugly night for FCD.
2) Clarity in the Final Third
To say that Dallas has struggled offensively in the 2020 season is probably an understatement. Of the 18 playoff teams between both MLS conferences, only three teams scored fewer goals than FC Dallas, all of which are in the Eastern Conference. They are the only team in the Western Conference playoffs that failed to reach 30 goals in 2020, and even last place in the west Houston scored more goals.
The primary culprit here has been the aforementioned inability to break down teams in the final third. Dallas seems to simply run out of ideas once they are forced into that situation and play typically results in relatively aimless crosses that are easily cut out or passing the ball around the edge of the box before a turnover or a relatively low percentage shot is taken.
The two-week interim between the end of the regular season and the playoffs is not going to be enough for Luchi and his team to completely correct this issue but the extra preparation will hopefully result in more purposeful play in the final third against Portland. They will certainly need it.
The physicality in MLS is a bit of a stereotype and a cliche. To be certain, the league is very far removed from the days where teams almost exclusively valued pace and power, but MLS remains a very physical league. MLS referees tend to allow for plenty of contacts and, especially in the playoffs, are often reluctant to pull out an early yellow card. Especially on the road, Dallas needs to ensure that they are not outmatched in physicality by Portland.
Andres Ricaurte, as he has been since his arrival to the league, will certainly be a target of Portland’s midfielders and defenders, and Dallas’ own defenders and midfielders, led by Matt Hedges and Thiago Santos, will need to be prepared to dish out some hearty challenges of their own.
At the same time, the players need to keep their emotions in check and walk the fine line without crossing over into malicious or dirty play that could potentially draw a disastrous red card. One of the biggest deciding factors in the match may come down to who has a better game between Portland’s Diego Chara and Dallas’ Thiago Santos, both of whom will be tasked with this kind of “dirty work” on Sunday.
Will FC Dallas come away with a rare victory in Portland to advance to the Western Conference Semi-finals?
Who gets the start in the biggest game of the season?
Featured Image: Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News