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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Despite home turf advantage, injuries slowed Portland

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Timbers players react as the Houston Dynamo win on Sunday and advance in the MLS playoffs.The Portland Timbers overcame so much to finish atop the MLS Western Conference at the end of the regular season that it figured they would find a way through the blockade approach of the Houston Dynamo.

Even when word came out before Sunday's conference semifinal at Providence Park that yet another player — defender Roy Miller — had suffered a season-ending injury in practice and would not play, there was real belief that the Timbers at home would find a way to advance.

Of course, the way MLS runs its playoffs, there isn't much of a home-field advantage. That's because the away-goal tiebreaker made Houston's goal on Sunday more significant than Portland's. By not scoring a goal in the scoreless draw at Houston in the first leg of the two-game series, the Timbers were at a mathematical disadvantage when they returned home.

"I don't really understand the away goals (tiebreaker)," a frustrated Diego Valeri said in the aftermath of the season-ending 2-1 loss to Houston. "I don't know what is the reason for that. Probably, they think away goals makes the away team go attack. But in soccer you can score from a free kick, from not attacking."

Unfortunately for the Timbers, that is exactly the way Sunday's match unfolded. Portland ever so briefly had a chance to dictate the match after Dairon Asprilla scored in the 39th minute for a 1-0 lead. But four minutes later it was Dylan Remick — in the match because of an injury to DaMarcus Beasley — tying the score with a half-volley.

That goal, from a free kick where Remick reacted first to a loose ball, allowed Houston to play to its strength: Defend, defend, defend and perhaps add a goal from a counterattack.

"For me, we had the game in our hands (with the early lead)," Valeri said. "Their first goal changed things. And the first part of the second (half), when we couldn't find it, the chemistry wasn't the best, they defended with a good block of guys kicking the ball away."

Any chance of true late drama ended with a well-struck 30-yard shot by Mauro Manatas. There would be 21 more minutes of soccer, but there would be no breakthrough for the home side. Houston won for only the second time away from home in the regular season. Portland lost at Providence Park for just the fourth time in 2017.

The Timbers didn't want to use the rash of injuries as an excuse for Sunday's loss. But in the two weeks after claiming first place in the West, Portland had eight players miss time with injuries. And that didn't include the previously injured Fanendo Adi.

"You never expect five, six injuries in a couple of weeks. That's hard to manage," Valeri said. "It's not an excuse. We had enough quality to win this game, and we didn't. That's why it's very disappointing."

Coach Caleb Porter said his disappointment is that a team he genuinely enjoyed coaching was undone by circumstances largely beyond its control.

"When you have a group that's bought in and believes, then it's always going to hurt even more when the season is done because there is not a guy in that locker room that believed we'd be ending our season," Porter said. "We believed we'd be moving on. It's a credit to them to believe that much even though we had so many guys out, and that's why I enjoy this group so much."

Captain Liam Ridgewell, whose return from extended injury sparked Portland's late run to the top of the conference, said he's never experienced anything quite like the injury setbacks the 2017 Timbers suffered.

"It's difficult to take. Chara and Adi, they're big-time players. Every single (injured) player is big-time," Ridgewell said. "I think the gaffer built the squad this year to deal with that, and we did. That's why we finished at the top (of the West).

"But we fell short (against Houston)," Ridgewell said. "It wasn't injuries that failed us tonight. It was the way we played. We didn't score enough, and we didn't defend well enough."

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