Houston Dynamo battle to draw with injury-riddled Portland Timbers
The Portland Timbers went to Houston hoping to stake themselves to a lead in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals against the Dynamo.
Instead, Caleb Porter's team left Texas with a 0-0 result and three potentially debilitating injuries.
Here are three thoughts on the goalless draw at BBVA Compass Stadium:
1. We got a track meet on a sloppy track
With two teams anxious to attack at speed whenever possible, the game quickly turned into an up-and-down affair that stressed both defenses. The condition of the field at BBVA Compass Stadium certainly had an effect; with neither side able to string together a run of passes on the divot-ridden surface, midfield possession play was rendered nonexistent.
The first half saw the greatest energy given over to counterattacking soccer and resulted in a number of good chances. Portland created an excellent opportunity to take the lead on a move initiated by Diego Valeri up the left side. The Argentine attacker curled his run to avoid an offside whistle, then found a streaking Darlington Nagbe in space at the top of the Dynamo box. With Tyler Deric bearing down on him, Nagbe somehow managed to scuff his shot.
The Dynamo had their own moments in front of the Timbers' net, with Alberth Elis proving particularly dangerous in transition. Beyond a few moments, the defenses largely did their jobs. The game slowed down in the second half, as Portland adjusted to changes to its lineup and the Dynamo added slower, more creative options in the hunt for a goal.
It certainly seemed like Dynamo head coach Wilmer Cabrera understood how important a goal would be for his side headed to Portland, as the Colombian boss made three attacking substitutions in the final half-hour.
2. The Timbers were felled by injuries
It's impossible to know how much blame goes to the uneven field in Houston, but the Timbers head into the decisive home leg with a trio of injuries, pending prognoses, that could loom large.
In the final few minutes of the first half, center-back Larrys Mabiala hacked down Elis before crumbling to the turf, picking up a yellow card to add insult to his injury. Porter turned to Roy Miller as a replacement in a scenario no head coach wants to face. Little did Porter know that it was only the beginning of the Timbers' injury woes.
Minutes later, defensive midfielder Diego Chara went down. Ominously, the Colombian signaled to the bench with something resembling a "break" gesture and was stretchered off as the half ended. Amobi Okugo stepped in to play the second half. Two injuries, two substitutions.
It didn't seem like it could get worse, until Nagbe was forced off in the 59th minute. Whatever plan Porter had for changes later in the match never happened. All three subs were used on injuries.
Worse, the Timbers will almost certainly be without Chara for the second leg, and they could be missing Mabiala and Nagbe, as well. In five games in 2017, the Timbers are 0-3-2 without Chara in the lineup. The last time they managed to win without him was in 2015.
The Dynamo might not be the favorite on the road, where they've struggled all year, but the chances for an upset are dramatically higher with the Timbers waylaid by disastrous injuries.
3. A tale of two (non) penalties
The two biggest moments of what ultimately proved to be a game without scoring came within 10 minutes of one another in the first half.
Elis's driving run into the Portland box forced a decision by Mabiala. The center-back, despite holding good position on the goal side of the Honduran attacker, chose to go to ground in a bid to win the ball. Mabiala got the ball, but he also took Elis down with his trailing leg. Referee Robert Sibiga pointed to the spot, awarding a spot kick and a potential lead to the Dynamo.
After a VAR-initiated review, Sibiga reversed himself and waved off the penalty. The call was certainly subjective, but the scissor action of Mabiala's tackle will have the Dynamo wondering why a change was necessary.
At the other end, Portland sprung an attack through the occasionally useful Darren Mattocks that prompted Houston keeper Deric to charge off his line. Mattocks touched the ball past Deric, then went down under Deric's diving challenge. Sibiga was unmoved and whistled for a corner kick. The VAR process did not come into play, presumably because it did not rise to the level of a possible "clear and obvious mistake."
In the end, the two calls evened out and the game remained tied. That's justice of a sort, though the Timbers -- in part because of the rash of injuries they suffered -- will wonder how things might have been different if the second decision had gone their way.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.