Sunday, November 29, 2015

It Happened in America: Portland and Columbus survive to MLS Cup Final

FC Dallas 2-2 Portland Timbers (3-5 on aggregate)
Dallas may have been down two goals after the first leg, but at least they had an away goal to stand on and give them the sense that they would be able to become the first team in 11 years to come back from two down in the conference final.

Portland's plan for the match was to keep numbers back and concentrate on defending to keep their two goal lead int act. Any attacking would be accomplished on the counter.

The first half worked well for the Timbers. The only real chance for Dallas came form David Texeira. He was gifted a point blank header thanks to a ball watching Norberto Paparatto in the 32nd minute. Adam Kwarasey was up to the task of making the huge save.

The match really opened up in the second half. Dallas needed goals, and needed them fast. They sent increasing numbers forward while the Timbers, still looking for an away goal to cancel Dallas's in the first leg, were also pressing in their limited possession. In the 54th minute, a moment of brilliance came for the Timbers. Dairon Asprilla created a turnover deep in the Dallas end and fed it forward to Valeri along the right wing. The Argentine maestro picked out Fanendo Adi, who had powered his way off his marker to get wide open near the penalty spot. Adi's shot took a slight touch of Jesse Gonzalez and into the goal.

Portland had their away goal and only needed to keep Dallas from scoring thrice to seal a win without extra time. That quest got a little nervy less than 20 minutes after the Adi goal. Micheal Hollingshead found himself wide open along the left side of the Portland penalty area in the 68th minute. He was able to slot a shot beyond Kwarasey with ease to make the aggregate scoreline 4-2. Five minutes later Blas Perez headed home a free kick to get Dallas within a goal of forcing extra time.

After Perez buried the second goal, Portland looked to revert to their early season form. Diego Valeri set up two perfect chances to effectively end the match in the dying minutes, but poor finishing from Maxi Urruti and Dairon Asprilla squandered the chances. Meanwhile, on the other end, Dallas was throwing everything they had towards the Portland goal. Thier best chance came two minutes into stoppage time when Blas Perez was in the right place at the right tight to collect a wayward ball and hammer it towards a gaping net. Nat Borchers, along with his sweet beard, made a heroic challenge to block the shot and send it out for a corner. 

As Dallas failed to get anything from said corner, Portland was able to counter attack with the newly introduced Lucas Melano. The Argentine collected a Valeri pass and danced his way through every Dallas defender, including Gonzalez coming to challenge him, to find himself on the end line. Not to be thwarted by the boundaries of the pitch, Melano tiptoed the line and managed to squeak the ball over the line in what can only be described as a masterful finish.

FC Dallas were sunk and Portland could begin their celebrations as Western Conference champions.

New York Red Bills 1-0 Columbus Crew (1-2 on aggregate)
Columbus entered the Red Bull Arena with a similar plan to Portland. They were going to defend the desperate New York team. New York was in dire need of a couple goals since they couldn't grab anything in the first leg lest weekend in Ohio,

The first half was lively. New York had the possession advantage, but not the finishing, required to make the comeback happen. Columbus did get their chances on the counter, as well. Luis Robles had to make a save with outstretched arms in the 38th minute to deny Kei Kamara of a potential back breaking goal.

More of the same ensued in the second half. New York continued to attack with more and more force as the minutes ticked by. After a series of failed attempts at chances, the ending was quite magnificent to watch, even after many New York fans gave up hope and streamed for the exits.

It began in the third minute of stoppage time. That was when Anatole Abang managed to float a header past Steve Clark for the first goal of the game. The Red Bulls were not in the mood to celebrate and only wanted to squeeze an equalizer in the minute and a half they likely had left. That tying goal almost came. As the final whistle loomed, Bradley Wright-Phillips got his head to a mad scramble in the penalty area. Clark, who was probably a little overambitious in his pursuit of the ball, could only watch as it sailed away from him and began bumbling towards the far post. Thankfully for him, and the Crew, the post is all the shot would see as it harmlessly rolled away for a corner. Seconds later, the final whistle blew and Columbus was through to their first MLS Cup appearance in seven years,

Next Sunday afternoon, in Columbus, Ohio, the Timbers and Crew meet for all the MLS marbles. There will be a whole week to digest the matchup and come up with some form of prediction. Being a Timbers fan who had no idea the team would ever progress this far in the playoffs (I even bashed this team so far as to almost call for Caleb Porter's head back in the spring), it should be a fun match to watch and write about. You can catch all the action at 4pm eastern time next Sunday on ESPN.

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