The Portland Timbers head to Sporting Kansas City for the second leg of the Western Conference Championships with a home clean sheet in their pocket, knowing that a win or score draw will be enough to qualify for the MLS Cup. This is the perfectly balanced tie for Gio Savarese’s men.
When Manchester United drew Sevilla in the Round of 16 of the Champions League last season, most expected them to progress. It was a fairly kind draw, avoiding the likes of Juventus, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, and Jose Mourinho’s side were largely considered the better of the two.
But then the first leg came. Mourinho, in his usually miserly style, approached it with one goal in mind: a clean sheet. United were defensive, showed little attacking ambition, and played for nothing more than a 0-0 draw. They got precisely what they wanted.
But that was a miscalculation. Sevilla were also happy with a 0-0 home draw. A score draw in the second leg would be all they needed to see them into the quarter-finals. In the end, Sevilla won 2-1 thanks to a Wissam Ben Yedder brace, but they only required a 1-1 draw to see past the Red Devils.
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Mourinho mishandled the away goals rule. In knockout competition over two legs, rarely do you not win the tie when you keep a clean sheet at home. In the 14 double-legged Champions League ties last season, eight had a home clean sheet in. Of those eight, all eight were won by the team that kept the clean sheet at home.
That is the current situation of the Portland Timbers in this year’s Western Conference Championship. After drawing the first leg at home 0-0, Gio Savarese’s team now travel to Sporting Kansas City for the second leg on Thursday night. They are confident.
Speaking after the match, Jeff Attinella stated:
"“It’s 0-0, we’re going to take this as a positive. They didn’t get that away goal.”"
That bullish point was supported by Jorge Villafana:
"“I think it’s a great result. Going over there, they have to score. If we score, it’s going to be tough on them.”"
And the Timbers have a right to be confident. Not only is history on their side, but the balance of the second leg will allow them to play in a manner that perfectly suits their strengths. There is little reason for Portland to chase the game. They do not really need to know. KC will have to be the proactive ones. The Timbers can simply sit deep, allow KC the ball in the midfield, and then look to pounce on turnovers and in transitions on the counter-attack.
With Diego Valeri’s wonderful distribution, the speed and movement of Sebastian Blanco and Jeremie Ebobisse further up the pitch, and a midfield and defence that looks far more comfortable when there is less space to cover, this the ideal type of gameplan that Savarese wants to employ. And because of the away goals rule, he can.
For Peter Vermes, meanwhile, although I am sure he is happy to be back in the comforts of Children’s Mercy Park, he must avoid the pitfalls that Mourinho so brilliantly laid out for him last season. KC must take the game to Portland. And there will not be many in Portland complaining about that.