Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers will be decided by whoever scores first
The Vancouver Whitecaps threw down a passable performance on Sunday in Portland, holding the red-hot Timbers to no goals in a 0-0 tie. Consider it job half-done, not just because the 90 minutes at Providence Park represents half of the 180 total minutes the two teams will play in the Western Conference semifinals, but also because Vancouver failed to grab an advantage headed back home to BC Place.
In other words, keeping the Timbers off the board is good, but not finding a goal is less so. This is a Whitecaps team that lost more often at home over the course of the regular season than any other MLS playoff team. There are no guarantees that playing in front of a friendly crowd in Vancouver will push the Caps on towards the conference finals and a chance to play for a berth in MLS Cup 2015. The fast track under the roof at BC Place actually plays into Portland's hands as much as it does the home team's, setting us up for what could be an end-to-end affair.
In the first leg, Carl Robinson chose to send his team out with an abundance of caution, focusing on slowing down the Timbers over pushing for a lead on the road. For what the strategy was, it worked. Now comes to hard part -- opening up the attack just enough to find the goal that will take the Whitecaps into the next round.
Vancouver got a yeoman's performance from Defender of the Year candidate Kendall Waston and his central defensive partner Tim Parker (usual starter Pa Modou Kah is out injured), and David Ousted is one of the best goalkeepers in the league, so there's security regardless of how aggressive the Whitecaps get.
Part of Robinson's calculus in the first leg undoubtedly came down to fitness of Mauro Rosales and Pablo Morales, both of whom came on as second-half substitutes in Portland. The South American midfielders are key to Vancouver's attack, springing Kekuta Manneh, Cristian Techera, and Octavio Rivero with visionary passes that allow for Vancouver's speed to make a difference. If one or both (but especially Morales) are ready to start on Sunday, that will change the dynamic for Robinson without much thought.
But Vancouver is built to sit in and counter, so there's only so much change Robinson can effect, whether Rosales and Morales are ready to go or not. Regular-season soccer cannot prepare the Whitecaps for what might be coming should the Timbers manage to find the first goal of the series, though it's not impossible to imagine that Vancouver is capable of changing their style if the situation demands it.
Portland scoring to take the lead or equalize will force Vancouver's hand. Because of the away-goal tiebreaker, one Timbers goal is as good as two; in order overcome the away-goal advantage, Vancouver would have to score more than once.
If a Portland goal comes late enough, the scramble to throw men forward and get the go-ahead goal will be intense. In that situation, the Whitecaps would have to do something they're not accustomed to: possessing the ball.
Again, this is not a team built to break down defenses, especially those protecting a lead in playoff series. The Timbers will happily welcome a desperate Whitecaps team forward, salivating at the chance to hit Vancouver on the counter with space opening up behind in midfield.
Portland is capable of giving the Whitecaps a dose of their own medicine, and with the knowledge that a single goal changes the shape of the series so dramatically, they'll be looking to run Vancouver out of the playoffs.
In no other series' second-leg matchup does it matter so much who scores the first goal. The tone of the game will turn on that event, since it will force at least one team -- and possibly both -- to shift their tactics midstream.
Vancouver desperately needs to take the lead at home because doing so puts them in prime position to do what they do best: lean on a solid defensive line, the midfield work of Matias Laba, and the stellar goalkeeping of David Ousted.
The Whitecaps are adept at their particular style. It's the reason they finished second in the Western Conference and have the homefield advantage over the Timbers in this series. If they give up the first goal, though, they'll have to figure out how to play in a way that they're not comfortable with. That's the imperative: score first, or it might be over.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.