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Stunning showing in Seattle series takes Portland one step closer to another MLS final

TRIBUNE PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Veteran defender Liam Ridgewell and the Portland Timbers are one step from returning to the MLS championship game.Some of the Portland Timbers didn't know they still had work to do when the 30 overtime minutes ended on Nov. 9 at CenturyLink Field.

But if they are to make last week's unforgettable two-leg series with the Seattle Sounders — a battle sure to inspire future tifos —  really meaningful, the Timbers know plenty of work remains.

By vanquishing their biggest rival from the playoffs (4-2 on penalty kicks) for the second time, the Timbers are halfway to a second MLS Cup championship.

To win it, they must get through three more matches, beginning with a two-leg series against Sporting Kansas City.

The first leg will be at Providence Park at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 25, the second in Kansas City, Kansas at 6:30 p.m. PT Thursday, Nov. 29. The team with the most goals after those two games will represent the Western Conference against the East champion on Saturday, Dec. 8.

Sporting KC finished atop the West, is unbeaten in its last seven matches (four wins, three draws) and used its high pressure to outscore Real Salt Lake on Sunday and advance.

This will be the second playoff meeting between Portland and SKC. The first, you might recall, was a thrilling knockout-round game that ended with the Timbers winning a penalty-kick tiebreaker (7-6) that went to the 11th kickers.

• The teams met twice during this year's regular season. On June 9, they played to a scoreless draw in Portland. On Aug. 18, Sporting KC scored a dominant 3-0 home win over Portland.

• The good news for the Timbers is most of them will have time to recover from the Seattle series. After a difficult run of three playoff games over nine days, the Timbers are enjoying 16 days off because of the November FIFA international break.

• That pause also gives us a moment to consider how far this team has come in Giovanni Savarese's first season. How did a team that seemed to quit in an early-season loss at Red Bull Arena and gave up three late goals in a loss to Orlando City in their fifth game became the team that has survived two elimination games away from home in the playoffs? How did a group that was outscored 10-2 in a four-match August skid that threatened their playoff chances become tough-minded in November? 

Perhaps no one is better to explain the transformation than Liam Ridgewell. The center back and former team captain dealt with injuries and a demotion. He didn't see the field between mid-May and late August, but has re-established himself as a presence.

He senses similarities between this playoff run and the 2015 team that captured the championship.

"It was a difficult restart at the start of the season," Ridgewell says. "But since I've come back, and certainly toward the end of the (regular) season, we've started to adopt that mentality of '15. We're starting to adopt the belief and never-say-die and working hard for each other and making sure we do whatever we need to do to win a game. That's the way it was in '15."

Still, it was hard to imagine a team that won only four times away from Providence Park in the regular season becoming a tough out in the playoffs.

"There've been a lot of changes," Ridgewell says. "Gio's been putting stuff in, and it takes time to get used to that stuff. At home, it's easier to do because you've got the crowd behind you and you don't have to travel. Away games are very tough. We've had to learn it quickly ... and now we've done it twice in the playoffs.

"You never know what's going to happen in the playoffs. Every game is a cup final."

• Every game is a cup final. You might remember Savarese saying something along those lines at his introductory press conference. Eleven months later, his club is within sight of the actual cup final.

One man who isn't surprised is Andres Flores.

Flores played four seasons under Savarese with the North American Soccer League's New York Cosmos. Two of those seasons ended with championships. When David Guzman was unable to play in the second leg against Seattle last week, Savarese turned to Flores to play alongside Diego Chara in what essentially was a defensive 4-4-2 set up.

In addition to detailed preparation, Flores lists belief as the key to Savarese's success.

"The good thing is he trusts in us," Flores says. "He always knows that we can do our job and we have very good players."

At Seattle, Flores says trust kept the Timbers comfortable even though they played much of the evening without the ball. Portland, which led 2-1 entering the Seattle leg of the conference semifinals, went to CenturyLink Field with a plan to keep its back four and midfield four close together and to funnel the Sounders' attack to the wings.

Portland's approach made sense considering the Timbers were playing their third playoff game in nine days and wanted to use their energy to limit the impact of Seattle midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro and forward Raul Ruidiaz.

But Savarese's plan produced some eye-popping statistics. The Timbers cleared the ball out of their 18-yard box 55 times in the 120 minutes. Seattle sent 43 — 43! — open play crosses into the box. The Sounders completed a MLS-record 807 passes (115 by Lodeiro alone). This compared with 406 for the Timbers, who for much of the night had trouble finding options when they did manage to possess the ball.

"We tried to make it difficult for them to find through balls in between the lines," Savarese said. 

It wasn't a comfortable approach, made more challenging because forward Jeremy Ebobisse and Diego Valeri were left to fend for themselves most of the times Portland did manage to advance beyond midfield.

But the plan was working to perfection until Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella dropped a Victor Rodriguez cross and Ruidiaz pounced to put Seattle ahead in the game and the series.

"Even though we had to defend, we knew we have the quality to score a goal or a couple goals and we did it," Flores says. "We just need to stick to the game plan and things are going to come."

• Perhaps no Timbers player is a better example of sticking with it than Dairon Asprilla, whose insertion for Andy Polo moments after the first Seattle goal turned out to be a game-changer.

Asprilla has spent much of his time in Portland as a fill-in player, one who hasn't been able to deliver consistent 90-minute performances. This season, Asprilla appeared in half of the Timbers' 34 regular-season matches and made only seven starts. His only goal was a penalty kick late in a 3-0 August win over Philadelphia. 

But when the playoffs arrive, so does the athletic 26-year-old Colombian.

In 79 regular-season games for the Timbers, Asprilla has five goals and six assists. In 10 playoff appearances, he has three goals and four assists.

It was Asprilla's 118th-minute assist to Maxi Urruti that got the Timbers to extra time in that famous shootout win over Sporting Kansas City and sparked their 2015 Cup run. Asprilla also scored from 30 yards in Portland's home-leg win over FC Dallas in the 2015 conference finals.

His header that put Portland in front early in the overtime Thursday at Seattle was perfectly executed at the end of a delicious cross from Valeri.

Asprilla's clinching PK was struck with confidence and enough power that the left hand of Seattle's Stefan Frei could not deny.

"It makes me very, very happy," he said through a translator. "I was waiting for an opportunity, just like many other teammates. It was a very special moment. I think if you try to do everything with love, things work out for you."

• Asprilla isn't the only member of the 2015 championship team trying to make a mark in 2018.

Lucas Melano converted the first PK to get Portland in front and put the pressure on the Sounders.

If not for a strong save from Frei, Melano would have scored a series-clinching goal in the second minute of stoppage time last week.

Melano also has been engaged defensively in his role as a late-game forward.

• Ridgewell had a chance to clinch the win over Seattle as Portland's fourth kicker in the tiebreaker. His only previous penalty kick as a professional came in the 11-round shootout with SKC in 2015 (he was Portland's third kicker that night, and he scored). This time, Frei dove to his right for a comfortable stop. Despite his limited experience taking PKs, Ridgewell is OK with stepping (or running) to the spot.

"My decision. Every time I'll take a penalty," he says. "You want to be a leader and show the team you'll step up and take a penalty. I'll do it again if I have to."

• Penalty kicks (or "kicks from the penalty mark" for rule book readers) have been used to break ties in elimination games since 1970. That is when FIFA adopted PKs as the tie-breaking method, replacing drawing straws or coin flips.

The Timbers are 2-0 in MLS playoff tiebreakers and 1-1 against Seattle, which won a U.S. Open Cup game that way in Portland.

• The away-goal tiebreaker — which is not unique to MLS (see Europe's Champions League) — only applied through the end of regulation play in the second leg.

This fact was not understood by several Timbers, including Blanco, who reacted as if Portland had won the series at the end of the 30-minute overtime.

As funny as the players looked celebrating prematurely, postgame avoidance of questions about the confusion from Savarese and his team made the situation more comical. 

• Timbers who won't get a break during this international window include Jorge Villafana, who is with the U.S. for friendlies against England (noon Thursday, ESPN2) and Italy (11:45 a.m., Tuesday, Nov. 20, FS1).

He will be back before the Timbers play leg one of the conference finals. How fresh he will be depends on how much playing time he gets in Europe.

Ditto for Polo, who was expected to be part of Peru's squad for Thursday's match against Ecuador and a Nov. 20 game against Costa Rica.

• The top-seeded New York Red Bulls and second-seeded Atlanta United have advanced to the East finals. The winner will play host to the MLS Cup final on Dec. 8.

Portland lost 4-1 at Red Bull Arena in the second regular-season game and played to a 1-1 draw at Atlanta.

The Red Bulls feature former Portland Pilots goalkeeper Luis Robles.

Former Timber Darlington Nagbe is a key midfielder for Atlanta.

• The home leg of the conference finals will be the last game at Providence Park for some time. As fun as this postseason success is for the organization, it has delayed work on the east side stadium expansion.

The Timbers figured to spend the first couple of months of the 2019 season on the road, anyway, but playing into late fall will push things back further.

Not that anyone in Timbers land is complaining.

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