MLS News
MLS Team of the Week: Valeri, Parkhurst, Robles Star in 2nd Legs
MLS News
Tuesday, 01 December 2015 00:43

The two MLS Cup participants were determined on Sunday in two dramatic second legs in the conference final round of the playoffs. 

Portland secured the first berth in the championship match with a 2-2 draw at Toyota Stadium against FC Dallas. The Timbers used a late clearance from Nat Borchers and a 95th-minute goal from Lucas Melano to win 5-3 on aggregate. 

Columbus earned the right to host the MLS Cup with a 2-1 victory on aggregate over the New York Red Bulls. The Crew conceded a goal in the 93rd minute and came close to letting in a second two minutes later, but Kei Kamara shielded Bradley Wright-Phillips' shot off the line after it hit the right post. 

Each of the four teams had players who stood out on Sunday, but some of those talented athletes came up short in their respective quests to win a championship.

Continue reading to see who was named to our MLS Team of the Week from the conference semifinal second legs. 

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Tactical Alterations, Strong Road Form Propel Portland to MLS Cup
MLS News
Monday, 30 November 2015 13:55

At the start of the 2015 Major League Soccer season, very few pundits and fans believed the Portland Timbers would make the playoffs, let alone earn a berth in the MLS Cup. 

The Timbers surprised plenty of people across the league on Sunday, when they held off a late surge from FC Dallas to win the Western Conference Final 5-3 on aggregate. 

"This is a great moment for this club," manager Caleb Porter said, per the club's website. "It's our first trophy, but we want the biggest trophy and we have one more game still to achieve that.”

Although many are still shocked the Timbers advanced to the final match of the postseason, the little details suggest Portland is more deserving than any team in the Western Conference. The Timbers were the best road team in the league this season and a formation tweak by manager Caleb Porter late in the year was the final adjustment needed to make a run into December. 

Winning on the road is one of the most difficult things to do in MLS, but the Timbers managed to perfect earning results on their travels over the final three months of the regular season. Since their 0-0 draw at Avaya Stadium with the San Jose Earthquakes on August 2, the Timbers dropped one game on the road, a loss to rival Seattle on August 30. 

During that time frame, the Timbers went into some of the most volatile home environments in MLS and secured three points. Portland twice went into Rio Tinto Stadium and took down Real Salt Lake. It also defeated the LA Galaxy by an emphatic 5-2 score in October. One of Portland's other road victories came on September 26 in the place it will contest the MLS Cup on Sunday. 

Having a win at Mapfre Stadium under their belts will be a key factor for the Timbers entering the MLS Cup, and given their road form in the postseason, it is hard to count them out of hoisting the trophy after 90 or 120 minutes. 

While Porter made plenty of tactical tweaks throughout the season, the biggest addition to his squad came in the offseason as the Timbers acquired center back Nat Borchers from Real Salt Lake. Borchers ended up making a game-saving tackle in the second leg of the Western Conference Final to avoid extra time. 

"When you have good players, they do that," Porter said, per the Timbers' club website. "I really wasn't all that nervous, to be honest with you, because I knew it was down to the players at that point and I also knew I had experienced guys, good players. I knew I had guys that would get it done, and I just have a belief in this team that we're going to advance." 

The only concern entering the MLS Cup for the Timbers is who will partner Borchers at center back, but Liam Ridgewell made it clear after the match at Toyota Stadium that he would start in the final, per ESPN's Jeff Carlisle: 

The adjustments inside the season also benefited Porter and his squad immensely. During the final weeks of the regular season, Porter shifted to a lone defensive midfielder patrolling the space in front of the center backs. Diego Chara has thrived in that role and he has turned himself into even more of an enforcer than he already was. 

By trusting Chara to work alone in front of the back four, Porter allowed Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri to play with less defensive responsibilities and surge forward in attack. With the attack-minded midfield pair finding more space, players like Fanendo Adi, Rodney Wallace and Dairon Asprilla have benefited from more chances in recent weeks. 

Even with Valeri and Wallace out due to suspension in the first leg of the Western Conference final, Portland rarely missed a beat in attack. Now with the attack fully staffed, the Timbers are set to give the Columbus Crew quite the test with the MLS Cup on the line. 

Although it isn't the sexiest final in the biggest market, Sunday's championship match in Columbus should end up being one of the best in league history thanks to Portland's success on the road in 2015. 


Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90. 

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Battle-Tested Columbus Downs Red Bulls to Advance to MLS Cup
MLS News
Monday, 30 November 2015 00:04

HARRISON, N.J. — There is no doubt the Columbus Crew will enjoy their Eastern Conference championship over the next 24 hours, but as manager Gregg Berhalter admitted after the game, there's still one key match ahead in the club's future. 

“I want the guys to enjoy it, but we have bigger fish to fry," Berhalter said in his postmatch press conference. "I wanted them to enjoy it on the podium. I wanted them to enjoy the trophy, but I told them they’re going to be remembered for the trophy they win next week. Not the one they win this week." 

Berhalter is 100 percent right. No one will remember who wins the conference championships years from now, but everyone will recall who hoisted the MLS Cup to conclude the 2015 season. 

Columbus earned its spot in next Sunday's final with a 2-1 aggregate victory over two legs against the New York Red Bulls, who won the Supporters' Shield for the league's best regular-season record. 

A victory over two legs and a home match to close out the postseason looked all but locked up for the Crew as second-half stoppage time approached, but one hiccup led to the most dramatic, and final, three minutes of the match. Two minutes after Anatole Abang scored the lone goal of the contest, Bradley Wright-Phillips' shot hit off the bottom-right part of the post before Kei Kamara cleared it off the line. 

“I thought it was going wide of the post," center back Michael Parkhurst said. "When I looked at it, I thought it was going wide and then when it hit the post I was like, "Holy smokes." We didn’t make it easy on ourselves. We’re happy to advance." 

Easy is the last word that would describe the Crew's path to the MLS Cup. In the playoffs, Columbus fought past an on-fire Montreal Impact side led by Didier Drogba before downing the top seed in the Eastern Conference. 

The tone for the club's deep run into the postseason was set late in the regular season during a stretch of challenging games to close out the 34-game slate. Columbus earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference by shutting out Toronto FC and D.C. United in successive matches. The latter victory saw the Crew flex their offensive muscle in a 5-0 home triumph. 

“We feel like we’re battle tested, that’s for sure," Parkhurst said. "Even the way we finished the regular season, we had a lot of big games against playoff teams and it wasn’t easy. We had to fight hard to get to second place, and now looking back it’s important that we did because we get to host the cup." 

The main tactical adjustment by the Crew that helped them get past the Red Bulls over two legs was to negate the pressure of Jesse Marsch's side. 

"It wasn’t a typical performance by us, but we identified their strengths and we wanted to turn that against them," Berhalter said. "You gotta give the Red Bulls a lot of credit. They had a fantastic season and the way they play, it works perfectly. They create chances off their pressure and we wanted to eliminate that and I think we did a good job." 

Columbus kept Red Bulls leading scorer Wright-Phillips away from goal for most of the 180 minutes, and the full-back pairing of Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful marked Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella straight out of the series. 

“Harrison and Waylon did a good job. They were big in this series," Berhalter said. "Our full backs are very important in our system and integral in our attack and our defensive structure. I’m happy for their performance."

As for the center backs, Parkhurst, who partnered Tyson Wahl in the first leg and Gaston Sauro in the second, identified one key strength in the game of Wright-Phillips that was eliminated from the outset of the series. 

“We didn’t let him in behind too often," Parkhurst said. "He makes really good moves in behind off the back shoulders of defenders. We were aware of those and we limited his chances of getting in behind us. We identified that as a big strength of his, and for the most part, I think we did a really good job of that."

After the final whistle blew on the second leg, the Crew began to shift their focus toward the MLS Cup against the Portland Timbers. Hosting the final game of the season is very important to everyone in the Crew organization. 

"What I’m most proud of is we get to bring the MLS Cup final to the city of Columbus," Berhalter said. "The fans have been behind us all year. You see the excitement that was building for these playoff matches and now to be able to play the final in Columbus is special."

In the one match between the two sides this year, Portland defeated Columbus 2-1 at Mapfre Stadium behind a brace from Fanendo Adi. 

"They’re the best team in the league away from home," Berhalter said. "They’ve been good and it’s going to be a difficult game." 

Whether or not the Crew come out on top next weekend remains to be seen, but over the last two months, they established themselves as the best representative of the Eastern Conference to challenge for the league's biggest trophy.


Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90. 

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MLS Cup Playoffs 2015: Timbers vs. Crew Schedule After Conference Finals
MLS News
Sunday, 29 November 2015 22:21

And then there were two.

The MLS Cup Final is set, and it'll be the Columbus Crew taking on the Portland Timbers on Dec. 6 in Mapfre Stadium.

The site of the game was supposed to be whichever team had the best regular-season record, but the Crew and Timbers finished the regular season with the same record of 15-11-8. However, because of a better goal differential, Columbus will host Portland in Ohio for the top prize in MLS.

Here's a complete rundown of the schedule:   


2015 MLS Cup Final Schedule

Who: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew

Where: Mapre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio

When: Dec. 6 at 4 p.m. ET



How did we get here?

The Timbers' road to get to the final game did not come easy. They advanced to the final after beating FC Dallas 5-3 on aggregate, but it almost wasn't this way.

Fanendo Adi scored the first goal of the second leg in the 54th minute to put Portland up 4-1 on aggregate, but as FC Dallas did in the quarterfinals against the Seattle Sounders, it stormed back to add drama to the match.

Two goals within a three-minute span from Mauro Diaz and Blas Perez gave Dallas a 2-1 lead, and it trailed only 4-3 in aggregate. But that was all FC Dallas could garner, as Portland's Lucas Melano shut the door on its season with a goal in stoppage time to secure the win.

The Timbers provided footage of fans celebrating at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland:

Columbus also advanced but not without some drama of its own. The second leg was scoreless for most of the match until three minutes into stoppage time. Anatole Bertrand Abang scored the only goal of the match to make it 1-0 Red Bulls and 2-1 in aggregate.

The officials gave New York more time than allotted, and the Red Bulls almost scored the equalizer. Dax McCarty had a clear shot just feet away from the goal, but the ball hit the post and went out of play. New York could do nothing after that, and time expired. The Crew tweeted about the huge win:

On a day filled with drama, the stage is set for a stellar MLS Cup Final. The Crew are looking for their second championship in franchise history, while the four-year-old Timbers are looking for their first championship.

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Didier Drogba Compares Level of Competition Between MLS, Premier League
MLS News
Friday, 27 November 2015 17:19

Montreal Impact star and former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba believes MLS is on its way to becoming one of the top leagues in the world and believes the rough travel schedule makes it a more difficult league to play in than the Premier League.

Speaking to Tony Jimenez of Reuters, the 37-year-old striker heaped praise on MLS:

It's a different challenge (in the U.S.). People think it's easy to play there. Believe me, it's more difficult than playing in the Premier League because of the travel.

You can stay at an airport for three or four hours if you miss your flight, so that is what is really leveling the game.

There are not a lot of away wins because when the teams arrive they are tired. There are also some very good players in the league.

It's a growing league and I think it's going to be one of the most important and decisive leagues in the world in a few years.

Drogba scored an impressive 12 goals in 14 matches during his first season with Montreal after joining the team from Chelsea at the end of the 2014-15 campaign. The Impact qualified for the MLS play-offs and beat rivals Toronto FC in the knockout round before losing to Columbus Crew in the semi-finals.

MLS saw a massive influx of talent coming from Europe the past season, with veterans Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard joining New York City FC, Steven Gerrard switching to LA Galaxy and Sebastian Giovinco moving to Toronto.

While the veterans looked solid, if unspectacular, in their first season in the U.S., Giovinco was nothing short of spectacular. The Italian broke several records and was voted best newcomer, per MLS' official Twitter account:

His impact and Drogba's fantastic numbers won't help the perception of the league, as the former was little more than a bench player with Juventus before his move and the latter scored just four goals in his last Premier League season, per

Players such as Drogba and Giovinco will surely raise the profile of the league, however, and they were hardly the only outstanding performers. Columbus' Kei Kamara is one of the favourites to win the MVP award, and team-mate Ethan Finlay firmly established himself as one of the league's best midfielders.

With so much talent now plying their trade in MLS, the future of the league seems incredibly bright. The teams may lack the history and prestige of some of their European counterparts, but with a huge TV market and a massive potential fanbase, their financial power should only increase in the coming years. 

Rivaling the Premier League or La Liga will be a stiff task, but according to Drogba, it's only a matter of time.


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Ultimate Guide to MLS Weekend: Can Top Seeds Recover from Deficits?
MLS News
Friday, 27 November 2015 08:46

With at least 90 minutes left to play in the MLS Eastern and Western Conference finals, both of the top seeds are facing deficits.

FC Dallas, who earned the No. 1 seed in the West, scored a key away goal in the first leg, but they are down 3-1 to the Portland Timbers. The New York Red Bulls, who are the No. 1 seed in the East, failed to find the back of the net on their travels and conceded twice to the Columbus Crew. Now with two spots in the MLS Cup final and the potential to host the championship match on the line, both top seeds must find a way to rebound from the first leg.

The formula seems simple for FC Dallas in the first match on Sunday since they are the owners of the best regular-season home record. However, Portland tied for the league lead in road wins and hasn't lost on the road since August.

In order to reach the club's first MLS Cup final since 2010, Oscar Pareja's side must receive more out of the attack-minded players in the starting XI.

Mauro Diaz shone a bit in the first leg, but when he had chances to finish off an away goal on set pieces, he failed to put a shot on target. Fabian Castillo and Michael Barrios were marked out of the match by Portland's full backs, Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana, which cut off most of the supply lines to forward David Texeira. But in a strange development, Texeira netted his first goal of the postseason while Portland realigned its defense following the departure of Liam Ridgewell.

FC Dallas must use the first leg as a learning experience and find a way to adjust to Portland's defensive scheme. Castillo found a few gaps against Powell, but for the most part, he did not make an impact. If the dynamic Colombian begins the match with a few superb runs, it will give him time to set up Diaz in the middle of the field. 

If Castillo gets going on the left wing, he will also up the potential for overlapping runs from Ryan Hollingshead, which could cause a good bit of trouble to the Portland back line. But the real key, as it has been for most of the postseason, is the form of Texeira up top. If the Uruguayan uses his first-leg goal as a springboard into the second leg, FC Dallas could finally have a complete set of in-form attackers. If Texeira fails to show up, we may see Blas Perez or Tesho Akindele make an early entrance. 

As for Portland, it all of a sudden has an embarrassment of riches moving forward, with both Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace returning from suspension. Because of the terrific first-leg performance put in by Dairon Asprilla on the wing, Timbers boss Caleb Porter may have a tough time deciding who starts alongside Darlington Nagbe on Sunday.

Regardless of who finds their way into the Portland starting XI, they must be able to strike on the counter early in a game wherein FC Dallas are expected to dictate the pace. An early away goal would most likely sink the fate of the home side and put Portland into its first MLS Cup final. 

A goal in the first 20 minutes would most likely come from Nagbe, who is flowing with confidence in the final third. Adding Valeri to the attack will allow Nagbe to have more freedom as he searches for space in the FC Dallas defense. Even if Portland records an early tally, do not expect the Timbers to sit back and defend. Portland will push for more goals, which means we could witness a wide-open affair at Toyota Stadium.

The focus will be on the Red Bulls attack in Sunday's second game as the hosts try to pull back a pair of goals at Red Bull Arena. Just like FC Dallas, the Red Bulls could not get a sufficient attack going in the first leg because of the play of the opposing full backs. Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella had little impact on the game, which meant Bradley Wright-Phillips did not receive any quality service. 

The biggest surprise in the first leg for Jesse Marsch's side was the poor play of Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan in central midfield. Both players looked disjointed, and that led to Columbus' duo of Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani dominating the middle of the park. With the potential to host the MLS Cup final on the line, expect McCarty and Kljestan to succeed. But if they don't produce any goals, their respective performances could be all for naught.

Columbus comes into the second leg with a comfortable advantage, but the Crew also wasted some chances at home in the first leg. In order for those missed opportunities not to come back and haunt them, the Crew must find a way to get Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara involved from the first whistle. If the dangerous attacking duo creates chances in the first 20 minutes, it will force the Red Bulls full backs to remain deep and not charge forward in search of scoring moves of their own. 

As always, Kamara's aerial ability could be a major factor in determining the final result. All it takes is one leap and one solid cross from the wing for the Crew to find the back of the net through the Sierra Leone international. On the topic of service, Federico Higuain must be more direct when he has the ball at his feet. On too many occasions in the first leg, Higuain decided to dance around and be cute in the final third instead of surging toward goal.

All four clubs still have a chance to get through to the final, but each faces a special set of circumstances. With that in mind, we'll take Columbus at FC Dallas in the MLS Cup final. 


Conference Final 2nd-Leg Schedule

Portland Timbers at FC Dallas (Sunday, 5 p.m., ESPN)

Columbus Crew at New York Red Bulls (Sunday, 7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1) 


Players to Watch

Diego Chara, CDM, Portland Timbers

Midfield enforcer Diego Chara of the Portland Timbers must shut down Diaz for the second straight week in order for Portland to reach its first MLS Cup final. 

Chara played Diaz physically in the first leg, but he must be clean and not earn a yellow like he did last time out.

There is no doubt the battle between Chara and Diaz will be at the forefront of the Western Conference Final second leg, but if Chara gets booked early, he may be forced to back off, which could open up room for Diaz to shine.


Fabian Castillo, LM, FC Dallas

Against arguably the best right back in the league in the first leg, Fabian Castillo failed to light a spark in the FC Dallas attack for 90 minutes.

But now that he's on home soil and with the possibility of his team hosting the MLS Cup final looking him in the face, expect the Colombian to have his way with Powell, at least in the early going in Texas. 

Scoring the first goal will be crucial on Sunday in Frisco. If FC Dallas strike first, they will able to take advantage of their away tally. But if Castillo fails to open up the Portland back line, the Timbers may be able to score an away strike of their own. 


Gaston Sauro, CB, Columbus Crew

Gaston Sauro returns to the field after a one-game suspension with a major task on his hands. The summer acquisition must limit the opportunities Wright-Phillips receives in the box. 

If the Argentinian center back keeps Wright-Phillips quiet for 90 minutes, he will force the Red Bulls midfielders to get creative. Based off the first-leg showing by the Crew full backs, that could be a winning formula for Gregg Berhalter's side. 


Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella, AM, New York Red Bulls

Sam and Grella simply must be better than they were in the first leg in Columbus. Both of the Red Bulls wingers failed to make any type of positive impact on the team's attack at Mapfre Stadium. 

There are ways to exploit space against the Crew full backs, but neither player found a way past Harrison Afful or Waylon Francis in the first leg.

If they fail to settle into the second leg, look for them to switch sides in attack. If that doesn't work, we could be seeing an early substitution from Marsch. 


Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90. 

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MLS: Why the Current Playoff System Has to Change
MLS News
Wednesday, 25 November 2015 00:00

The MLS playoffs resumed last Sunday after a two-week break and, due to the international window, the postseason was lost in the shuffle.

Abruptly pausing during the playoffs is probably why the buzz faded, and it's one of many reasons why the current MLS playoff system has to change.

The conference finals were exciting, but both FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls looked very rusty. They were the two best teams in the regular season, yet they both have to overcome two-goal deficits in the return legs.

Dallas and New York each played 34 regular-season games to claim the top seeds in their conferences. Their rewards consist of starting a two-legged series on the road with an away-goals tiebreaker.

Using this rule is absurd in a seeded tournament. The home team has to be more careful because goals are almost twice as valuable for the road side.

Even some European clubs want to abolish this method in the UEFA Champions League, where there's no numerical seeding in the knockout stage.

It was introduced to encourage the away teams to attack, but it's just made the matches more cautious and tedious.

MLS began enforcing the rule in 2014. An average of 2.76 goals per game were scored during the two-legged series in the playoffs that year. There's been 2.3 per match this season. In 2013, there were 2.84.

Using away goals demeans the regular season. It rewards lower seeds that recorded fewer points across a 34-game campaign.

Two-legged rounds must also be scrapped. They kill momentum for the teams because the international break coincides with the playoffs.

Playing in Columbus or Kansas City in November and December is not ideal, either.

Removing the extra legs would allow the season to finish one week before the international break in November. This means players get extra vacation time and can stay in sync throughout the postseason.

This also adds more meaning to the regular season. Because the top seeds would have home-field advantage, it gives the other teams more incentive to finish higher in the standings.

The league may want two legs because it allows it to broadcast more games on national television. However, ratings have declined in 2015 compared to 2014, per Soccer America's Paul Kennedy:

MLS is competing with the NFL on Sundays as well. Moving playoff games to Saturdays cannot work because college football rules the airwaves, which Jonathan Tannenwald of pointed out:

All the more reason why single-game knockout rounds have to be considered.

Sudden-death matches add drama, which leads to more eyeballs. Plus, if the playoffs finish earlier, MLS avoids clashing with the NFL when its teams are jockeying for postseason positioning.

The opening round of this year's playoffs were incredible for many reasons, and this was no coincidence.

The 11-round penalty shootout between the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City was insanity and is one of the most memorable moments of the playoffs.

The Seattle Sounders' victory over the LA Galaxy was as crazy as it was entertaining. That match finished 3-2. All it was missing was the extraordinary penalty shootout.

Juan Agudelo's bicycle kick, Jermaine Jones' outburst, Toronto FC's capitulation and the Montreal Impact's dominance are other storylines that MLS fans won't forget for a long time. 

MLS has the ability to produce more of these memories. All it has to do is reconsider its current layout for the playoffs.

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MLS Team of the Week: Meram, Kamara, Nagbe Star in Conference Final 1st Legs
MLS News
Monday, 23 November 2015 08:45

The first legs of the Eastern and Western Conference finals produced a pair of surprising results as Columbus and Portland came out on top at home in their respective games. 

Columbus used the fastest goal in MLS postseason history to jump on top of the New York Red Bulls. The early strike stunned the Supporters' Shield winners, and it allowed the Crew to dominate the match. 

Over in Portland, the Timbers came out of the gates with the same attacking vigor, but they didn't find the back of the net until the 23rd minute. Although they conceded an away goal to FC Dallas in the second half, the Timbers scored three goals to take a two-goal advantage into the second leg. 

Since Columbus and Portland were easily the better sides on Sunday, the majority of our MLS Team of the Week is comprised of players from those two teams. 

Continue reading to see who made the best 11 from the conference final first legs. 

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Portland Establishes Favorite Status After Western Conference Final 1st Leg
MLS News
Sunday, 22 November 2015 22:47

The Portland Timbers established themselves as the favorites to be the Western Conference representative at the MLS Cup with a 3-1 win over FC Dallas on Sunday at Providence Park. 

The Timbers jumped into the driver's seat of the match in the first minute as they almost replicated Columbus' early goal in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final earlier on Sunday. 

Before FC Dallas could even settle into the match, Fanendo Adi and Darlington Nagbe put their back four under pressure with a surging move forward. Nagbe dished the ball over to Lucas Melano, whose shot was kept out by 20-year-old goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez. 

Portland continued to press for its first strike for the first part of the opening stanza, and it finally was rewarded for its efforts in the 23rd minute, when Liam Ridgewell scored on a corner. 

The Timbers kept pushing for their second for the rest of the first half, but they were unlucky not to find the back of the net. The main reason the Timbers were able to relentlessly move forward was the play of the defense. Diego Chara, Jorge Villafana and Alvas Powell did their best to limit the chances created by Mauro Diaz, Fabian Castillo and Michael Barrios. 

The vulnerabilities of the trio rarely showed, and when they did, the visitors were unable to take advantage of free kicks in dangerous areas because they were not in an offensive rhythm. 

With a second goal needed at home, Dairon Asprilla unleashed the goal of the weekend in the 53rd minute. The Colombian winger perfectly curled a shot from the right wing into the top-left corner of the net to hand the hosts a valuable two-goal advantage.

The Timbers had a brief slip-up in defense right after Ridgewell left the match for Norberto Paparatto. Two minutes after the change, FC Dallas exploited the Portland defense on a set piece and David Texeira scored what could end up being a vital away goal. 

But that away goal may not mean anything because Portland struck for a third late in the game as Nat Borchers tapped in a corner. On top of that, the Timbers put together a sterling road record over the last few months of the regular season. As if things couldn't get worse for FC Dallas, Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace will return as fresh bodies to the Portland lineup after both served one-game yellow-card suspensions Sunday. 

While we can't write Portland's name in Sharpie on the list of MLS Cup participants yet, it is hard to pick against Caleb Porter's side entering the second leg in a week's time at Toyota Stadium. 

In Sunday's victory at home, Portland limited Texeira, Barrios and Castillo to 29, 30 and 41 touches respectively. Per WhoScored, those were three of the four lowest totals recorded by any starting field players for FC Dallas. Diaz made 63 touches, but he was held to one key pass and two shots on target.

Keeping up the same level of containment in the second leg will be difficult, but the Timbers displayed the game plan to do so on Sunday. Chara must continue to perfect the role of midfield enforcer against Diaz. The Colombian just has to hope the referee for the second leg is as lenient as Ted Unkel was in the first leg. Chara committed four fouls, but he didn't receive a booking until the 78th minute. 

Powell and Villafana also have to be at their best again in order to keep Castillo and Barrios away from goal. There were a few points in the second half where Castillo got around Powell on the left wing, but the Colombian winger didn't have many options to pass to in the box because Borchers had everything sealed up in front of the Portland net. 

In addition to rolling into Texas with a boatload of confidence, the Timbers boast one of the better road records in MLS. Portland tied Vancouver for a league-high seven away wins in the regular season and defeated Vancouver in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal at BC Place two weeks ago. 

Since the start of August, the Timbers have road wins over Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy, Columbus and Vancouver. They also earned a point at the start of August in San Jose. The only road loss during that stretch came on August 30 to Seattle. But the last road defeat before that was a 4-1 shortcoming at the hands of FC Dallas. 

FC Dallas, which won 13 of its 17 regular-season home games, does have one thing going in its favor thanks to Texeira's away goal, but Oscar Pareja's side did little to back up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. An early strike in the second leg would change everything in the Western Conference final, but no one expects Portland to sit back and defend for 90 minutes even if the game remains scoreless for most of the first half. 

Portland will no doubt enter Toyota Stadium as the favorite to clinch a spot in the MLS Cup, but winning in Texas will require the same, if not a better, effort as the Timbers produced in the first leg. 


Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90. 

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Columbus Sets Tone in MLS Eastern Conference Championship with Strong Showing
MLS News
Sunday, 22 November 2015 19:59

The start was ideal. The performance that followed was fantastic. And the 2-0 result after 90 minutes was a perfect start to the Eastern Conference Championship for the Columbus Crew. 

Thanks to their stellar all-around showing in front of the home fans at Mapfre Stadium, the Crew left the Eastern Conference Championship first leg with a two-goal advantage over the New York Red Bulls heading into next Sunday's second leg at Red Bull Arena.

Columbus shocked the Supporters' Shield winners with a goal nine seconds into the match. Off the opening kickoff, a long ball was played onto the head of Kei Kamara, who headed the ball down to Ethan Finlay. Finlay dished an assist over to Justin Meram and the Iraq international finished off the fastest goal in MLS postseason history. 

Meram's early tally mesmerized everyone, as no one expected the reliable Red Bulls back line to break down on the first attack of the match. From that point on, the tone of the match was set. Columbus threatened on countless occasions before Kamara's 85th-minute goal handed Columbus a critical two-goal advantage. 

Not only did the Columbus attack thrive throughout the majority of the match, its defense also shut down the Red Bulls wingers and took Bradley Wright-Phillips out of the game. Wright-Phillips' contribution was limited to two off-target shots in the defeat that saw Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella rarely make an impact from the flanks.

The Crew's thorough defensive showing came without the suspended Gaston Sauro, who was a rock next to Michael Parkhurst for the second half of the season. Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl showed few deficiencies at center back, while Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful kept the ball out of the dangerous areas on the wings. 

The standout showing from the Columbus back four produced the first clean sheet against the Red Bulls since May 24, and it handed the Crew their first shutout of the postseason. 

Columbus was also able to find vulnerabilities in the Red Bulls midfield, which has earned plenty of praise for its pressing demeanor for most of 2015. Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan looked mortal at best, and although Felipe produced a decent 90 minutes, he still looked a little disjointed without McCarty and Kljestan firing on all cylinders. 

In the final third, the quartet of Columbus attackers in the starting lineup found plenty of space by breaking down the usually organized Red Bulls back line. Although the Crew did not capitalize on a few key opportunities, they were able to leave an imprint in the minds of the Red Bulls defenders that there are plenty of holes waiting to be exploited. 

Luckily for the Crew, they did not waste all of their chances, and Kamara finished off a critical second goal with five minutes left in the match. Substitute Cedrick Mabwati made the Red Bulls defense look like traffic cones before his shot was saved by Luis Robles. But Robles' save deflected behind him, and Kamara was left unmarked to tap in the goal. 

Now the task ahead for the Crew is to replicate the first-leg performance in a week's time at Red Bull Arena. The Red Bulls will certainly make adjustments to their tactics, and the home crowd will provide them another advantage. 

One thing the Crew must improve on is their finishing. Despite putting two shots into the back of the net, Columbus missed a few chances to extend their lead further in the first leg.

Meram's curling effort in the 43rd minute was batted away by Robles, and Afful's shot in the 49th minute from open space flew off to the left of the goal. On the road, the Crew might not receive as many scoring chances, which means they can't afford to waste any opportunities. 

Columbus also needs more production in the air out of Kamara, who didn't involve himself in many aerial battles with the Red Bulls center backs outside of his header to Finlay to set up the first goal.

Kamara failed to get either of the Red Bulls center backs suspended with a yellow card due to his lack of aggressiveness in the air for 90 minutes. That means Matt Miazga and Ronald Zubar will get another chance to mold their partnership to perfection and shut down Kamara in the second leg. 

Federico Higuain was also a little too selfish for Columbus' liking in attack on a few moves forward. Had the Argentine playmaker dished the ball out to the wings quicker, the Crew may have found more space. But despite the little flaws in their game, the Crew still left the first leg with a victory and a clean sheet. 

The Crew played the first leg to near perfection, but in order to advance to MLS Cup on Dec. 6, they must fix the little mistakes and find a way to keep the Red Bulls quiet for another 90 minutes. 


Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

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