Portland Timbers
For the first time since 2015, the Portland Timbers are back in the Wild Card round of the MLS Cup Playoffs — facing a eminently winnable do-or-die knockout game tonight in suburban Frisco against a struggling FC Dallas team (6:30 p.m., TV on ROOT Sports, UniMas).

The Opponent

There is very little reason why Dallas should be in this game. Oscar Pareja's team was at or very nearly at the top of the Western Conference standings throughout the first half of the season, and needed only to hang onto a late lead in Colorado on Sunday to finish second and get a Wild Card round bye.

Instead, they conceded twice in the final ten minutes and tumbled all the way down to fourth place. It was a mini-collapse, and it mirrored the trajectory of Dallas' season: after starting so well, they finished the campaign losers of three straight, having averaged barely over a point per game since August.

Considering what happened last year, when Dallas fell apart down the stretch and missed the playoffs entirely, the pressure is squarely on Pareja and his team to stop the bleeding in this game.

Do they have the tools or the confidence to do that? Pareja's postseason record has left plenty to be desired over the years — he's only been to the conference finals once, despite having the West's best team in 2015 and 2016 — and he has a big job on his hands to try to get his group ready to bounce back on short rest.

The Tactics

It's not going to be a beautiful game. Neither the Timbers nor Dallas particularly want to do anything except sit their lines deep and counter, and, sure enough, the 180 minutes the two teams contested during the regular season produced just two goals.

Dallas has been especially dire going forward of late. They've scored just two goals from open play in their last seven games, and have scored multiple goals from open play only three times since their tailspin began at the start of August.

There are two main reasons for the attacking woes. One is that the team hasn't replaced Mauro Diaz and thus lacks a creative playmaker. Pareja has been using Maxi Urruti as his number ten, which is an odd role for a player who is by no means an elite passer and often struggles to find and impact games.

The other is that there is no reliable finisher. Dominic Badji, acquired from Colorado for Kellyn Acosta over the summer, has a decent pedigree and is the likely starter up top tonight, but he hasn't scored in two months.

This isn't, however, to say that Dallas is dead in the water. They're strong on set pieces, tough defensively, and have the pace, largely through wingers like Michael Barrios and Santiago Mosquera, to break games open.

That means that the Timbers are going to have to be alert defensively. They'll be set up in the 4-2-3-1, not take chances with their fullbacks, and let their front four players — with the occasional assist from Diego Chara and David Guzman — try to wreak havoc going forward.

Ultimately, it might come down to which team can handle the other's counter attack better. Alan Kelly will be the referee, the temperature should be manageable, and the stands, on Halloween night in Frisco, will be mostly empty.

The Lineups

FC Dallas

1 - Gonzalez
6 - Pedroso
3 - Ziegler
24 - Hedges
2 - Cannon
7 - Gruezo
8 - Ulloa
11 - Mosquera
37 - Urruti
21 - Barrios
16 - Badji

Portland Timbers

12 - Clark
4 - Villafaña
24 - Ridgewell
33 - Mabiala
16 - Valentin
20 - Guzman
21 - Chara
11 - Polo
8 - Valeri (C)
10 - Blanco
17 - Ebobisse

— The big personnel question facing Savarese is who to start in goal. Jeff Attinella has only played twice since Sept. 1, and his performance in Vancouver on Sunday was mixed: he made a couple of excellent saves, but should have done much better with Alphonso Davies' opening goal.

— Steve Clark, meanwhile, is coming off of his best outing of the year against RSL two weeks ago, but wasn't particularly impressive in September in Attinella's stead.

— One player to keep an eye on is Liam Ridgewell. The former captain has mostly been strong since returning to the lineup at the end of August, but he's only played on the road four times all season — and in three of those outings, the Timbers conceded multiple goals and lost.

The Memory

The Timbers' only other playoff trip to Dallas, for the second leg of the Western Conference Final three years ago, was a thriller: it finished 2-2 on the night, 5-3 on aggregate, and sent Portland to MLS Cup.

The Pick

The Timbers have beep preparing to play this game for ten days. They'll take the field tonight far better rested and in far better form than Dallas — and move on with a 2-1 win.