Could Houston's offensive firepower, home form trouble top-seeded Portland?
Two attack-happy teams meet for the first time ever in the playoffs. Here is how the Portland Timbers and Houston Dynamo shape up heading into their Western Conference semifinal.
When you have an MVP finalist in your ranks, you have to feel good about your chances. Diego Valeri is the straw that stirs the drink in Portland, and there is no reason why his blistering form to end the season -- 11 goals in 12 games -- cannot continue into the playoffs. Even if forward Fanendo Adi is not ready to return from injury, there is still the speedy Darren Mattocks to open holes in the Houston defense. Also, flanking Valeri on each side will be Darlington Nagbe on the left and Sebastian Blanco on the right. This is an attack capable of unlocking any defense.
For whatever reason, the final 10-15 minutes of matches have been the Timbers' Achilles heel this season. Portland lost a whopping 10 points from the 80th minute on in six matches this season, including a 2-2 draw in Houston in late July. With goals expected to fly around in this series, Portland's vulnerability could get exposed at the most inopportune of times.
The Portland defense isn't exactly rock-solid either - 50 goals allowed in 2017 - and against an attack like Houston's one slight lapse or hesitation and the ball can be in the net.
Why they will win:
Portland have the weapons in attack and enough bite in midfield with David Guzman and Diego Chara to slow down Houston's vaunted counterattack. Portland fans also have to feel good about their chances against the Dynamo's defense. With the Texans missing two starters -- A.J. DeLaGarza and Leonardo -- a back four that is rather unfamiliar with each other and mostly on the wrong side of 30 will be tasked with slowing down Valeri & Co. Over the course of two legs with the second being in front of the green-clad faithful in Portland, the Timbers should advance.
Much is said about the Dynamo's attack, and with good reason; they found the back of the net 57 times during the regular season and they boast one of the best counterattacking units in MLS. But one aspect of that which is not talked about very much is the depth of Houston's bench. Thursday night's 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City was a perfect example. What a wonderful luxury for coach Wilmer Cabrera that he was able to turn to his bench in the second half and throw on Honduras international Romell Quioto and experienced playmaker Vicente Sanchez, who created Alberth Elis' winning goal. In a series where many goals are expected, Houston's attacking depth could prove pivotal.
Dynamo fans had to have been pulling their hair out while watching their team's finishing, or lack thereof, on Thursday night. Houston wasted so many scoring chances, especially in extra time, and while they were able to get away with it against Sporting Kansas City, Portland won't be as forgiving.
In addition to their poor road record (just one win), the backline is also a concern. It seems odd to say that about a team that has just registered three straight clean sheets, but Leonardo's injury now means two regular starters are out (DeLaGarza the other), so a makeshift and older back four will be asked to stop the likes of Valeri and Mattocks.
Why they will win:
As noted prior to the Sporting Kansas City game, the Dynamo thrive at home. This is a team with enough firepower up front to get a 3-1 or 4-2-type of win in Space City in the first leg, and then survive an open-ended return leg in Portland. Basically, if the Dynamo are going to win this, they'll be dancing with what brought them here: goals. Add in that goalkeeper Tyler Deric is in the form of his life, and you have a Dynamo team with nothing to lose and capable of knocking out the top seed in the west.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .