Why the Timbers' weakness on Sunday could be a strength on Thursday

After a rocky start, everything seemed to have broken perfectly in the Portland Timbers’ favor.

Jeremy Ebobisse and Sebastian Blanco found the net to overcome Raul Ruidiaz's early goal for the Seattle Sounders as the Timbers wrestled the impetus back in Leg 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Then Cristian Roldan and Chad Marshall, both pivotal performers for the Sounders, were forced off the Providence Park pitch by injuries before halftime.

Leading 2-1 at home, their bitter rivals wobbling, surely Portland would go for the jugular in the second half, right? Surely they wouldn’t be content with a mere one-goal aggregate advantage, given the daunting task of a second leg at CenturyLink Field on short rest?

Wellllllll…

It wasn’t that the Timbers didn’t want that all-important third goal. The Sounders, even caught shorthanded, were in many ways simply the better team after the break.

“It was a little dysfunctional when they [Roldan and Marshall] came off, but we gutted through it,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said afterwards.

“We made some adjustments in our mentality and how we established possession in their half of the field. I thought it worked. We were able to establish good possession in their half for some considerable time in the second half.”

And Portland were unable or unwilling to throw the additional numbers forward that might have doubled their lead. In fact, Portland's head coach Giovanni Savarese let slip a telling little turn of phrase in his postgame press conference that hinted at his tactical mindset.

“In the second half it was an up-and-down game,” said the Venezuelan. “It was an open game, chances for them, chances for us – a little bit more open than I would like.”

These are the chess matches that unfold in the postseason, when aggregate leads and away goals and short turnarounds and injury concerns hang heavy in the minds of decision makers.

Portland’s conservatism might’ve complicated their efforts to fatten their lead on Sunday, but it may well prove to be a highly useful quality on Thursday. Yes, it stings to leak an away goal and Seattle can advance with a clean-sheet victory of any sort. Yet Savarese’s side have shown repeatedly that they can be dominated in possession and most other metrics, and still bank a positive result.

They’ll probably need to score. But they like their matchups in attack, and justifiably so.

“We knew they are not very fast in transitions and we tried to press in that area of the field and then counter with some precision,” Valeri told ESPN in his postgame interview. “And we got the goals.”

Teams that are efficient with the ball and clinical in front of goal tend to prosper at this time of year, and that stands to be magnified to nerve-jangling levels in Seattle come Thursday.

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