|Dairon Asprilla was a one man wrecking crew versus Houston|
Due to the compressed state of fixtures, leg 1 took place at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston on what apparently passes for grass and neither team could put anything past either goalkeeper as the sides played to a scoreless draw. The result gave some advantages to the Dynamo in not conceding any away goals, which is vital as away goals is the first tiebreaker in 2 leg series if the teams ended up drawn on goals after 120 minutes. Portland took away other costs from the match, however, as Diego Chara, Larrys Mabiala and Darlington Nagbe all had to leave the match due to injury - and this was after the Timbers were already down David Guzman (hamstring injury), Sebastian Blanco (second degree burns) and Fanendo Adi (still injured). While there was hope that Mabiala and Nagbe might be available for leg 2, Chara sustained a broken bone in his foot that required surgery, so Timbers Coach Caleb Porter knew he would be a man down at least. As I sat down in the park to get ready to cover the match, more injury news was being circulated as Roy Miller and Ben Zemanski were also injured and not available. Miller ruptured an Achilles during training on November 4, the same injury that felled Gbenga Arokoyo to start 2017, while Zemanski strained a meniscus that may require a procedure. As if healthy bodies were at a premium to begin with, Porter was having to dig very deep to field a strong side.
|I feel bad for Roy Miller & how his season ended.|
Porter was faced with that very query 11 minutes into the match when Mattocks and Dynamo midfielder Juan Cabezas collided going for a ball in the air, and Darren took the worst of the unintentional contact. While Cabezas was able to continue after getting a quick examination, Portland decided not to risk Mattocks' health based on their concussion protocol review and they were forced to sub on Ebobisse immediately. While the move seemed initially to spring some life into the Timbers' attack, Houston spent most of the first half packing the backline while shadowing Valeri and bracketing Nagbe. Dynamo Coach Wilmer Cabrera's plan seemed to be tailored to force anybody else on the Timbers to attack Houston while trying to minimize the influence of Portland's two best playmakers. While Asprilla and Valeri had great chances between the 23rd and 27th minute on goal - Asprilla's header was caught by Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis at the very last second, it wasn't until Asprilla started threatening the goal after the 30th minute when it appeared the Timbers were gaining their footing. In the 39th minute, Valeri pushed a ball out wide to Vytas on the left, and the cross came back to Asprilla in the box as Dynamo defender Dylan Remick temporarily lost his footing. The gap was just enough for Dairon to punch the ball past Willis to put the home side up 1 to 0, and it appeared the home side could breathe for a minute.
|Diego Valeri was Mr. Everything for the Timbers in 2017. How does he follow that?|
Blanco entered in the 55th minute for Okugo, which pushed Nagbe to more of a central role after Valeri and Guzman nearly missed on other efforts, but upon his inclusion, the Timbers would get just 3 official shots down the stretch. The most dangerous chances for Portland were in the 59th minute when Vytas and Asprilla put forth a great run and the Timbers defender nearly found Ebobisse at the spot, but Willis was able to get to the ball first. The other chance was off a long pass to Ebobisse in the 88th minute where he had tangled with Dynamo defender Phillipe Senderos just outside the box. Ebobisse went down hard and was called for the foul, but replays showed that Senderos not only pulled down the Timbers defender, but he was the last defender which could have made for a DOGSO review. Center Official Ismail Elfath instead tagged the Timbers striker with the foul, but by this point, Houston had already added a second when substitute Mauro Manotas caught the defense napping and put a distance shot into goal in front of the Timbers Amry in the 79th minute. After 8 minutes of stoppage and several other runs and moves, the final whistle blew and the Timbers were bounced from the postseason.
|Who were we playing again? I didn't see any bule out there.|
Many will throw criticisms at Elfath and his officiating crew, who effectively let the sides play and didn't throw out any cards until later in the match. By that point, the various infringement tactics for the Dynamo were in full swing, and fans saw the full version of Dynamo strikers Alex, Alberth Elis and Erick Torres. While extremely dynamic and talented players, they are also in the true mold of persistently annoying players - exaggerating contact at any point, talking to the officials nearly non stop, and generally annoying defenders wherever they go. Upon recollection, I can't fault Elfath in terms of individual calls outside of the Ebobisse/Senderos decision, I was very upset that he chose not to control the antics more. Willis was also at the edge of time wasting in terms of goal kicks and restarts, but Elfath chose again to ignore the pattern until he finally carded Dynamo substitute Oscar Garcia late in second half stoppage for not taking a throw after several seconds after the whistle blew. I get it, dramatics and tactics take a premium during the playoffs, but for me, many of the actions we saw would have warranted discussions or cautions in the regular season, yet they were ignored due to the stage. But I'm not here to blame the officials, because really it's not their fault that the Timbers lost this match.
|Get well, Diego. We need you to return healthy and strong.|
There were some other strange parts about the match - a street preacher with a megaphone was yelling about before the kickoff, the weather had a threat of snow for several days before the match date, and the Timbers Army were chanting "F**k Seattle" before the match to antagonize the Dynamo - but the end theme here was that the Timbers weren't able to fight enough to get pasat every challenge. Houston, to their credit, executed their plan to perfection and they were able to prolong their season. Portland now gets to ask the question - what now? There are certainly huge pieces and talent here in the Rose City and this group put together a run to win the Western Conference regular season championship and their first Cascadia Cup title since 2012. The team also put forth a 60 goal season behind an MVP effort from the Maestro, but he wasn't completely alone in contributing to the attack. In the next entry, I want to take a look at the various questions and put forth my thoughts on where they might go, but to say the season been memorable is a huge understatement. The Timbers never make being a fan easy, but the end results are usually worth the hassle - and I cannot wait to see what this group can do in 2018.