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Why FC Dallas shouldn’t fear the Portland Timbers

Portland are deserved favorites, but they’re no juggernaut – FC Dallas has a real shot at an upset.

MLS: FC Dallas at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it happened again. FC Dallas has drawn a team from the pacific northwest in the first round of the playoffs. If it weren’t so tragic it would be funny.

The Timbers won MLS is Back. The Chara-Williamson-Valeri midfield is one the highest quality and best-balanced trios in the league. As a club, they’ve got a lot of experience making playoff runs, most recently contending for the MLS Cup in 2018. They’re the 3rd seed in the West whereas Dallas is 6th. What chance does Dallas have?

A healthier one than you might expect.

Who were the Timbers actually beating?

Portland finished with a +15 goal differential on the year if you count the MLS is Back knockout rounds. “Wow!” you might be saying, “that’s a little more than half a goal per game. Crazy!” But where have they actually accrued all those goals? If you examine their record this year, seven games against the woeful Galaxy and the 8th-seed Earthquakes (who, at one point, were on track to post the worst per-game goal differential in MLS history) account for almost all of Portland’s performance above zero.

Of the teams they played more than once this season, Portland were negative against LAFC, Seattle, and RSL, and had positive records against LAG, VAN, and SJE. Not exactly the results of a team you would expect to be competitive in the playoffs.

They did earn a positive goal differential against the other teams on their schedule, most notably winning MLS is Back by dispatching many of the best in the East, but the team FCD will face is not the same team that accomplished that feat – more on that later.

The analytics don’t like them

While Portland posted a +11 goal differential excluding the MLS is Back knockouts, their expected goal differential (for an explainer on expected goals, go here) was…well…bad. ASA says it was -6.3, FBRef says it was -3.8. Both data sources agree that Portland outperformed their chances mightily. ASA says they were the luckiest team in the league when comparing their xGD to their GD. FBRef says they were second only to Minnesota with close competition from Columbus and Philadelphia.

ASA estimates that the Timbers earned about 0.5 points per game more than their xGD warranted, roughly the difference between where they finished in the standings and where Vancouver finished. Their cumulative ability to create scoring chances for themselves and deny said chances to the opposition most closely resembled Real Salt Lake, San Jose, Houston, and the Red Bulls in 2020. Would you be scared going into this game if FCD were traveling to play those teams? Maybe, because FCD has been average on the road in 2020, and in MLS “average on the road” means “lose more often than not”. But the point remains that we’re not talking about going to play Boca in La Bombonera here. They earned the lowest PPG at home of any of the Western conference hosts in the first round.

They could be very short-handed

Finally, Portland are likely a weaker team today than they have been at almost any point this year. Playmaker Sebastian Blanco, who powered that team to the MLS is Back crown, is out for the year. Goalscorer Jaroslaw Niezgoda is also out with an ACL tear, and backup striker Felipe Mora won’t be back from international duty in time for the FCD game. 3rd-stringer Jeremy Ebobisse has struggled with concussions recently and is questionable for the coming game.

If all those players are out, Portland are left with Diego Valeri (still extremely dangerous) and Yimmi Chara (whose underlying numbers look very similar to Fafa Picault’s) to lead the attack. Not nothing, but not unstoppable either.

FCD fans should absolutely be disappointed about losing home field advantage on the last day. However, they should not write off this FCD squad yet. A very similar team took the eventual champions to the brink in 2019, and this 2020 version of the Timbers are by no means the match of that Sounders squad. If that 2019 game was an indicator, Dallas won’t be afraid of Portland. You shouldn’t be either.