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What we learned against Portland Timbers

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Dallas fought their way through Portland, but are they ready for what’s next?

MLS: FC Dallas at Portland Timbers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

After a gripping penalty shootout, FC Dallas has advanced to the Conference Semis. Dallas withstood a bevy of close calls in the second half, but eventually Jorge Villafana gave Portland the lead in the 82nd minute. Dallas’ lifeline came just over ten minutes later when Ricardo Pepi sprung on a through ball from Matt Hedges. He unceremoniously split the disorganized Portland defense, driving straight to Steve Clark. His first attempt found the post and returned to him for an easy conversion of the biggest goal of his career so far.

Dallas looked more menacing in extra time than they did in the opening ninety, bolstered by Michael Barrios, Pepi, and Ema Twumasi’s fresh legs. Nevertheless the two teams couldn’t be separated in extra time. Both teams were perfect in penalties across seven shooters. However, despite his veteran experience, Villafana couldn’t match the composure shown by Twumasi as the Timber watched on as Maurer pounced on his attempt.

Dallas were only the better team in execution. Thankfully, that’s all that matters. Despite being out shot, out possessed, and generally out played—Dallas took advantage of Portland’s mistakes and displayed the resolve necessary to defeat the Timbers at Providence Park.


Lineup

Perhaps it was Dairon Asprilla’s retroactive suspension that emboldened Luchi to do it, regardless, the call to start John Nelson at left back so that Ryan Hollingshead could play on the wing was a gutsy move. Luchi showed an affinity for Hollingshead in a more advanced role later in the season, but I wouldn’t have guessed he would be willing to bench Barrios to make it happen. The resulting front three—Hollingshead, Franco Jara, and Fafa Picault—looked like Dallas’ most cohesive attacking unit all season long. Not only did they have great individual performances, but each one’s effort, energy, and intensity were something to behold.

Picault, for all his struggles this season, was immensely important to this team’s late season run. Yes, he’s very fast and dynamic in that sense, but he’s far more important when he sets the tempo with his pressing intensity. His bursts of speed well into extra time are both a testament to his own drive and Dallas’ fitness regime.

Hollingshead and Picault showed immense defensive efforts
Hollingshead, Jara, and Picault’s defensive actions
MLSsoccer.com

The location and quantity of the defensive actions from attackers are clear indicators that this team has bought in. They have room to tweak and improve, but don’t let the stats tell you Dallas didn’t deserve this result.

Pepi

Correlation is not causation, but Pepi getting three out of Dallas’ five shots on goal (in 35 minutes no less!) is fantastic sign of his efficacy. Dallas’s attack looked much more threatening when he came on. Jara can’t do it all himself, so having an extra body in the box makes Dallas’ crosses much more likely to result in a goal. The question is, if we know that we want Pepi and Jara on the field at the same time: how long do you wait? Is it feasible to start them both. Maybe you could bench Ferreira. While on paper Dallas have had better results with him in the midfield, if Luchi fully embraced the counter or instructed Hollingshead to get more involved centrally, then I could imagine it working.

Dallas still don’t know who they’re going to play in the next round of the playoffs, but I’m not sure that matters. Regardless of whether it’s Seattle or LAFC, Dallas are going to be outgunned. Luchi is going to have to tell the players that if they play their game—then the result will take care of itself. And if we look at Dallas’ best moments against Portland, then their game means energetic counter-attacking play with two strikers. Luchi making the right substitutions at the right time is going to be key to pulling that off, but if this week was anything to go by—I think he can do it.

Matt Freakin’ Hedges

Dallas’s defense wasn’t phenomenal. They did a lot of emergency defending during the second half. It seemed certain that Portland would score eventually and they did. Jimmy Maurer bailed this team out time after time, but nevertheless, Matt Hedges should not be taken for granted. Not only did he provide some semblance of stability, but also assisted Pepi’s goal (though not officially because Pepi scored on the rebound).

I can’t see Dallas’ lineup without checking Matt Hedges age. It amazes me that he’s been this team’s sole stalwart for so long and he’s still only 30. A Nelson-Bressan-Hedges-Reynolds back line is still good for three or four more seasons at least.

Hedges shows no sign of slowing down. We’re only able to spend so much time agonizing over the attack because we’ve taken having one of the best defenders in MLS history for granted. He gives this team the solid backbone we need to be perpetually (somewhat) competitive. Wouldn’t it be great if the rest of the team could show their appreciation for Hedges with a nice big trophy?


  • Bigger shock in the lineup: Nelson starting or Barrios benched?
  • How do you use Pepi next round?
  • Is Bressan a good enough partner for Hedges?