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Villa tops Audi Player Index in win vs. Fire

Five Aside
Read
 By Jason Davis

Tired Timbers will hope to exploit Whitecaps' vulnerability out wide

With the MLS playoff knockout round now in the rearview mirror, the Portland Timbers host their Cascadia rivals the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday night (5 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) in a two-legged Western Conference semifinal. Jason Davis looks ahead to the tie.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Strength: The counter

Vancouver is built for speed, a trait that gives the Whitecaps a run-and-gun style that is very difficult to defend. The title is disputed, but there might not be a better team in the league at hitting goals on the break, making matching up against them incredibly difficult for teams that want to hold the ball, thereby playing directly into Vancouver's hands. Possession isn't high on the list of priorities for the Whitecaps, in part because they have a defensive setup adept at creating turnovers to turn into counter-attacks.

Weakness: Wide areas

Through the middle, Vancouver can be very good. But down the wings, its defense is not quite as solid, making them vulnerable to teams that that can play with width. Because possession of the ball isn't their game, the Whitecaps need to win the midfield and move quickly from one phase of the game to another. If teams make that harder by spraying the ball wide, the Whitecaps can find themselves in trouble.

Kekuta Manneh possesses the speed, vision and finishing that can terrorize opposition defenses.

X factor: Kekuta Manneh

Just 20 years old, Manneh is the Whitecaps' most dangerous player running at back lines. Incredible speed and a keen eye for a pass keep defenders honest, which allows Manneh to pick among a number of options. If necessary, he's capable of finishing, although there's plenty of room for improvement in his game. It will be mandatory for Portland to limit Manneh receiving the ball in space if they hope to keep him from impacting the result.

Why Vancouver will win

It went under the radar, but no team in MLS earned more points on the road than the Whitecaps. That means have the ability to get something from the away leg of the series; doing so would set them up nicely to finish things out at home, in front a vibrant, partisan crowd. Maybe it's the side's relative youth and naivety, or maybe it's down to manager Carl Robinson's leadership, but this is not a team that gets shaken playing away from the confines of BC Place.

Portland TimbersPortland Timbers
Vancouver WhitecapsVancouver Whitecaps
0
0
FT
Leg 1
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Portland Timbers

Strength: wing play

With a number of flank players capable of pushing forward into the attack -- including Darlington Nagbe, Rodney Wallace, Alvas Powell, Jorge Villafana and Lucas Melano -- Portland presents a challenge to defenders looking to prevent dangerous crosses into the suddenly efficient Fanendo Adi. It's not just speed, but the effective interchange of players on the wing that allows Portland to create chances out of their 4-3-3 formation. Melano in particular has proven to be a menace on the right, feeding passes toward the middle of the park and bringing teammates into the attack.

Weakness: Chance conversion

Portland entered the playoffs on a high, scoring nine goals in their final two matches. But it took them 120 minutes to get two goals against Sporting Kansas City despite controlling long segments of the knockout-round match. Adi was made largely ineffective, and Nagbe's streaking runs failed to create much danger. Throw in the fatigue that comes with playing 120 minutes of intense, physical soccer and then navigating a taut penalty shootout, and it's worth wondering if the Timbers will have the sharpness to overcome a resolute Whitecaps defense.

MLS Cup Playoffs 2015 - SPI Simulations

Make Conf. Finals
Make MLS Cup
Win MLS Cup
New York Red Bulls
53.6%
31.7%
22.6%
FC Dallas
52.4%
28.7%
18.8%
Vancouver Whitecaps
48.9%
22.5%
13.5%
Portland Timbers
51.1%
24.0%
12.5%
Seattle Sounders
47.6%
24.9%
13.5%
Columbus Crew
49.6%
21.1%
8.5%
D.C. United
46.4%
25.4%
6.2%
Montreal Impact
50.4%
21.9%
4.5%

X factor: Rodney Wallace

While Diego Valeri is the creative force in the middle and Nagbe slashes all over the field, Wallace is free to make dangerous runs up the Timbers' flank, creating additional problems for defenses trying to stop Portland's numerous other attacking threats. Wallace has rounded into one the top wingers in MLS, providing athletic ability and a nose for goal that makes him one to watch as the Timbers advance to the conference semifinals.

Why Portland will win

Heart, defense, and a little bit of luck. The Timbers certainly rode its luck in the penalty shootout win over Sporting, needing several reprieves in order to see another day. As for the defense, when they're on, Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell are among the best center-back tandems in MLS. The pair can dominate in the air and aren't afraid to punish attackers with physical play when they range into forward areas. And after the events of Thursday night, no one is going to doubt the Timbers have the heart to pull out games they look destined to lose.

It might just come down to who wants it more, to borrow a cliche. This Timbers team has already proven they want it plenty.

Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.

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