FRISCO, Texas — A Diego Valeri double saw the Portland Timbers through the Knockout Round of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs at the site of their 2015 MLS Western Conference Championship win. The game had some similarities to the second leg at Toyota Stadium as the Timbers once again held off a late FC Dallas comeback, winning 2-1, but the Argentine isn't looking too far into the comparisons from the Timbers' MLS Cup winning side.
"It's different," said Valeri. "Different season, different group, but we showed strong character. Strong personality from the team. It's not an easy stadium to play at and not an easy team. They're a very good team. We showed good unity, a good performance and we fought like [it was] a final."
After an apparent 12th-minute Reto Ziegler goal was ruled offside after Video Review, Valeri gave the Timbers the lead with an inch-perfect free kick in the 23rd minute. With a chippy game developing between two teams who have nurtured a competitive rivalry, the game looked like one side may find themselves down a man, and that came in the 58th minute as Larrys Mabiala saw red for a foul on Dominique Badji. With Dallas threatening, a Portland breakaway saw Jesse Gonzalez attempt to wrest the ball from the feet of Jeremy Ebobisse, who laid off to Valeri with an open net.
"I think it was an even game until the second goal," said Valeri. "After the red card, they came hard and attacked very well. They put in a lot of crosses and forced us to be deep."
Valeri's brace saw his stats rise to five goals and two assists in 16 appearances against the North Texas club. The Timbers remained unbeaten in three MLS Cup Playoff matches with Dallas. After drawing both regular season games, Portland seem to have a knack of turning it on in the postseason.
"I don't know why," said Valeri. "They're a good team with a lot of quality in the players, a good coaching staff, and hard to beat. We couldn't beat them during the regular season, but it happens. We were smart today and efficient, and that gave us the opportunity to win."
Despite a late Matt Hedges consolation goal, the Timbers saw out seven minutes of stoppage time to earn a Western Conference Semifinal clash with either Sporting Kansas City or the Seattle Sounders. When asked about Valeri's effect on both sides of the ball, Portland head coach Gio Savarese was succinct in his description of the reigning Landon Donovan MVP Award winner.
"Big players know how to be important in the game, and he did a great job today."