PORTLAND, Ore.—Maybe it was a smokescreen. Maybe it was something from game film. Maybe it was the raucous home crowd.
Whatever the cause, it turned out Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter spent the week throwing followers off his scent. Heading into the first leg of his team's Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Championship first-leg matchup against FC Dallas, Porter preached pragmatism, saying he’d be happy with a 1-0 win or even a scoreless draw, as long as the Timbers didn't allow the all-important away goal.
Instead, what transpired was a commanding 3-1 victory at Providence Park on Sunday, with the Timbers flying out of the gate.
“We talked about pragmatism – and you [media] guys did – but that was never going to be what we were going to do,” said Porter, with a wry smile. “We came out aggressive; that was always going to be the plan: to come out, press and attack.”
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A dangerous chance from Lucas Melano, driving in from the right wing to receive a perfect feed from Darlington Nagbe just 30 seconds from the opening whistle, proved a harbinger of things to come. By halftime, ahead on Liam Ridgewell's goal, Portland had controlled possession and outshot Dallas 6-4 (3-2 when it came to shots on goal).
“In the first five minutes, our aim was to press them and show them what we’ve got, and that’s exactly what we did,” said striker Fanendo Adi. “Doing that made them stay back and made us play our game, and it worked out for us.”
Part of what justified Porter’s subterfuge was Dallas' firepower. The attacking trio of midfielder Mauro Diaz, Fabian Castillo and Michael Barrios has torched opposing defenses, combining for 26 goals and 21 assists in the regular season.
Porter said it was faith in his defense – and a bit of a formation tweak – that made him believe he could go for it.
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The Timbers' head coach moved away from the 4-3-3 formation that has been so successful over the past two months and opted for the 4-2-3-1 used throughout his three years at the helm of the club. Porter explained that the two defensive mids in the 4-2-3-1 provided needed “cover” for the speed of Castillo and Barrios on the flanks.
“I knew we could do that because of how organized we are in the back, so that didn’t worry me to have that approach,” Porter said. “When we started figuring out how we were going to approach the game, we wanted to set our team up in a way where we had good protection from our holding mids.”
Even after going up 2-0, and then conceding a 62nd-minute goal by FC Dallas forward David Texeira, the Timbers stayed proactive and added crucial insurance for the second leg. Portland defender Nat Borchers cleaned up the scramble off a stoppage-time corner kick for a game-sealing goal. Portland finished with more than 53 percent of the possession and a 14-11 shot advantage.
“We felt we needed to capitalize on a home game to score goals, and we did,” Porter said.
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.