At the end of a difficult season, the Portland Timbers face one final hurdle on their quixotic playoff push.

This week was not an easy one for the Men in Green. It started off on Friday night at the home finale against Real Salt Lake. If there were ever a highlight to sum up Portland’s 2014 frustration, it would be this segment, where the Timbers quickly turn defense into attack, execute a threatening counter, only for it to be stymied somehow/again/against-all-logic by Nick Rimando.

The best that can be said of this frantic series of near-misses is that it seems like if Portland could have done just a little bit better, they would have scored. Instead, it was 90% of a great idea, and the climax drew a thundering “aww” from the Timbers Army, instead of green smoke. It’s how the whole season has felt. At least RSL didn’t march back down the field and score. The nil-nil draw was hard fought, and it’s tough to disagree with the result as a fitting conclusion for the 90-minute struggle.

While that sort of result would have looked like nothing but a positive at any other point in the season, on this occasion, it did the Timbers no favors.

A draw of their own kept Vancouver one point ahead of Portland heading into the final round, but the circumstances surrounding each team’s final match are exceedingly different. Vancouver plays at home, against the already-eliminated Colorado Rapids, who have no incentive other than pride to play for. The Timbers, meanwhile, are at a sizeable disadvantage:  they have to go on the road and get a result against a hot FC Dallas team, poised to grab the precious third seed in the West to avoid the 4/5 play-in game. Salt Lake concluded their schedule by defeating Chivas USA on Wednesday night, and now sit just two points ahead of Dallas. The Timbers’ hosts on Saturday can thus guarantee the advantageous spot with a win. 

In a vacuum, it would be a tough game. In reality, Portland had a nightmarish midweek calamity, thousands of miles from home in Honduras. The Timbers crashed out of the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday night in Tegucigalpa, conceding two goals almost immediately and never really recovering. Ben Zemanski’s 52’ long-range goal gave Portland life, only to see them concede a mere two minutes later. The match ended 3-1 to the home side, and the 5-5 aggregate score between Portland and C.D. Olimpia allowed the Hondurans to advance on the strength of the two goals they scored at Providence Park in mid-September. Portland thus becomes the first team in CCL history to win three group-stage matches and not advance.

Could there be a more depressing, evocative summary of how 2014 has gone for the Timbers? The year has simply been snake bitten, almost from the get-go. Yet, there is hope. The odds aren’t favorable, but in spite of everything that has gone wrong this year, the Timbers can still make the playoffs.

The playoff scenario looks like this: Portland makes the postseason if they finish ahead (duh) or level on points with the Whitecaps. In MLS, the first tiebreaker is wins, so if Vancouver lose and Portland draw – the teams thus ending level on points -  both teams will finish with 11 w’s. The next tie-breaker is goal differential, and Portland’s current +1 is seven better than Vancouver’s -6. A draw, obviously, keeps GD null, so a Vancouver loss and a Portland draw earns the Timbers a playoff berth.

Obviously, a loss means the Timbers are out, even if Vancouver loses.

Vancouver and Colorado get underway in BC an hour and a half after Portland and Dallas kick off in North Texas. Since the matches don’t directly coincide, the Timbers still won’t know their fate until long after their game ends. So even if they earn a victory, Vancouver can still bump Portland off if they too take all three points.

In short, Portland’s only path to the postseason is a win or draw and a Vancouver loss against a team with nothing to play for. That’s why the odds are so long.

As much fun as it would be to break down ways in which Colorado could bump the ‘Caps off, let’s not focus too much on what the Timbers cannot control. A better discussion: how to defeat Dallas, on their home pitch, in a big game. Tough as Toyota Stadium has been for the Timbers in their four-year MLS history, it was the site of one of Portland’s (and Caleb Porter’s) biggest wins to date, in the 2013 Open Cup quarterfinals.

So, how do the Timbers beat FC Dallas? We think it breaks down to four simple (read: not simple at all) steps:

  1. Start strong. The Timbers have conceded first an astounding twenty-one times this year. No match was more indicative of how this can ruin Portland’s game than Tuesday night in Tegucigalpa. Portland conceded first in both matches with Dallas this year, losing once and drawing once. On a positive note, of the Timbers’ five come-from-behind wins this year, four came on the road.
  2. Contain Fabián Castillo. The 22-year old dynamic Colombian midfielder/forward is fast enough – and tricky enough – to give any MLS team fits. Portland’s shaky midfield, already without Will Johnson, will have to shut down the 10-goal scorer (who has also set up four more.) Perhaps another Calí native, Diego Chará is the man for the job.
  3. Don’t fall for Blas Pérez. Already one of MLS’s most infamous antagonists, with the stakes as high as they are, expect Mr. Pérez to put on his full repertoire of histrionics. From play-acting his way into earning free kicks, to buzzing in the referee’s ear about every foul and why it should be a card, a player like Blas Pérez can dismantle Portland’s game plan with one well-timed dive. Referee Jair Marufo is towards the bottom in terms of fouls given (285 in 11 games, fourth-bottom of all referees with 10+ matches in 2014), yellow cards (23 – the fewest of any with 10+), and red cards (2, T-2nd bottom). However, it’s imperative to be especially careful in and around the penalty area. Simulation aside, Pérez has scored 11 goals and set up six more. The mercurial Panamanian is dangerous enough.
  4. Play with desperation. There’s no tomorrow without a win, and that’s about all we know. So, why leave anything in the tank? For all of Portland’s slow starts and late concessions, this match absolutely requires 90 minutes of full attention.

The famous USOC win in Dallas last year birthed coach Porter’s most famous quote to date, which spawned two scarves, a patch, a tifo, and a beer. This is why Portland rules.

No matter what happens, it is important to be proud of this team, and to continue to support them in the way only Portland knows how.  Teams sometimes go through rough seasons, and this just simply is one of them. A bad result may kill off our season, but it won’t dent this fanbase’s passion.

Here’s to a playoff preview next week!

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