FC Dallas may have fallen 3-1 to the Portland Timbers at Providence Park in the first leg of the West finals, but a positive can be taken from the defeat: David Texeira's second-half score gives Dallas the tiebreaker on away goals, should they come back to even it up in the second leg.
Before they can think about that, they need to focus on scoring early and often against the Timbers, who, keep in mind, won't sit back and absorb the pressure. There are plenty of things FCD need to do in order to accomplish the task, such as getting Fabian Castillo going and doing better on set pieces.
Here's what they need to do against Caleb Porter and the Timbers:
1. Score early
Getting off to a good start would get the home fans into the game while also eliminating pressure in the later stages. If they can put up an early goal, momentum would shift completely in favor of the hosts.
FC Dallas need to do everything they can to avoid having to scramble for a goal late in the contest. This does not mean push everyone forward in the first ten minutes, however, they need somewhat of a sense of urgency. Sticking to the game plan and making sure not to allow a crucial away goal is pivotal.
2. Break the full-backs
Portland's defensive tactics were spot-on as they stifled the dynamic offense of Dallas in the first leg. Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers were stout, cutting off Diaz's passing lanes and taking Texeira out of the game completely. Alvas Powell was very good in one-on-one situations against Castillo, something that is very hard to do.
Eliminating Castillo from the match is basically impossible, but Porter did a great job of it. Obviously, Powell had to be on top of his game, but the main thing that hurt the Colombian was the fact that the Timbers' Jamaican right-back had help. Jack Jewsbury, Diego Chara, Dairon Asprilla and Borchers all pitched in, acting as second defenders if Castillo slipped by Powell. They combined to eradicate the effectiveness of the inside channel, forcing the star winger to send in impotent crosses that never really threatened Adam Kwarsey.
Jorge Villafaña did the same thing to Michael Barrios on the opposite side of the field. Dallas likes to send in ground crosses from the edge of the box in abundance, so the fact that Portland was able to combat this played a huge role in their success. It's not surprising that FCD scored their only goal when Ridgewell's replacement, Norberto Paparatto, lost his mark and let Texeira walk right through the backline. It is a good bet that Dallas would never have scored if Ridgewell didn't aggravate his calf sprain (he'll be back on Sunday).
So how can the Texans solve this issue? First, they need to continue to feed Castillo. It's key that he doesn't fall out of their offensive equation, because if he keeps attacking Powell, at some point he will break through. A more direct option would be to try and catch the defender out of position. He likes to push forward and at times will be caught way out of position, so if Castillo can get into a one-v-one opportunity with someone other than Powell, there's a good chance that he will be able to either out-speed him or draw a foul in a good spot.
Another way to attack the Timbers is to combat numbers with numbers. If Portland continue to stack players on Castillo and Diaz, FC Dallas should push other people forward, such as left-back Ryan Hollingshead and midfielders Victor Ulloa and Kellyn Acosta. More passing options for Dallas's attacking duo would allow more threatening runs and shots to occur.
3. Win set pieces
One of the main reasons Portland won last week was thanks to set pieces. They clearly had a plan going in, and it worked to perfection. They used their height advantage to win second balls and keep it in the box, in the process screening poor Jesse Gonzalez and helping them get quality shots on target.
Sending the ball to the near-post and flicking it on to someone waiting at the back-post was a pretty simple-yet-successful tactic. Going with more of a zonal marking system to cope with the zig-zagging movement is key, as well as making sure to stick someone at both of the posts.
If the Hoops manage to clear the ball on their first try more often, a counter-attack would certainly ensue. Both of Portland's center-backs get into the box for corners (they both scored from set pieces), so Castillo and Diaz would theoretically have space for a rush.
It won't be easy, though, because Portland's main set piece taker Diego Valeri will back from suspension.
So what will happen?
FC Dallas will do enough to score, but even if they manage to keep a clean sheet, it'll be the Timbers that advance to the MLS Cup final.