New formation and team depth prove the keys to Portland Timbers' playoff win vs. FC Dallas

PORTLAND, Ore.—The Portland Timbers entered their most important game since the 2013 Western Conference Championship missing arguably their most important attacking player in midfielder Diego Valeri, in addition to starting winger Rodney Wallace, both due to yellow-card accumulation.

Against FC Dallas in the first leg of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Championship, the losses surprisingly didn’t seem to matter. Veteran Jack Jewsbury filled in admirably – as part of a formation shift in a 4-2-3-1 – during Portland’s 3-1 victory at a sold-out Providence Park.

“We’re a team," said Timbers head coach Caleb Porter. "That’s the first thing I always say to my club when I take over a team: It’s not first team, second team – it’s one team.

“And I need all of them, and that’s been the case this year. And you see when guys come in the game for us, whether it’s off the bench or starting when they haven’t been starting, they always look hungry, and they always look bought in.""

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Jewsbury is the perfect example of that ideal.

The 13-year veteran – and team captain during Portland’s first two seasons in MLS – played in 26 games with 18 starts during the 2015 regular season and he started two of their three previous playoff matches.

“It’s a special group,” said center back Nat Borchers. “These are the kind of performances you need to have at this time of the season. When you have big-time players like Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace out and get Jack to come in and step up – he’s a veteran in this league, so he knows what to do, and he did a great job.”

Jewsbury was used in a two-defensive-midfielder, 4-2-3-1 setup, as Porter departed from the 4-3-3 formation utilized during the past two months. The new formation allowed Darlington Nagbe to shift into Valeri’s attacking midfielder role and it allowed Porter to play Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla, two players who have been in and out of the starting lineup this year, alongside Fanendo Adi up top.

Porter said it was not only the absence of two key players that led to the shift, but also the need for “cover” on Dallas’ speedy attackers; the lone defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 might not provide enough.

"[Jewsbury and Diego Chara] were terrific tonight,” said center back Liam Ridgewell. “I think they stopped every attack they had and nullified what they did. We’ve been playing a one [defensive midfielder], then back to two, so I think everyone that’s been in there has done a job, and Jack and Chara were brilliant tonight.”

With Nagbe running the show at attacking midfield, Portland were able to control the pace and create the bulk of the chances. Asprilla bagged a stunning long-distance goal, Portland’s second, in the 53rd minute; he joined Melano in firing off three shots.

“It just seems like we’re so much about energy,” Borchers said. “And just the way we come out and push things and set the tone, I think that really helps us.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.