The Portland Timbers broke a three-match winless streak Saturday night against FC Dallas, and it could not have come at a better time.
Never has the MLS Western Conference been more competitive and, with major playoff implications on the line, the Timbers desperately needed three points.
With an offensive explosion in the first half and tough as nails defense, the Timbers earned those three points with a 2-1 win. Midfielder Diego Valeri recorded two assists, feeding strikers Ryan Johnson in the 26th minute and Darlington Nagbe in the 33rd.
FC Dallas evened the score 1-1 in the 28th minute and turned the match into a physical affair in the second half, but the Timbers were able to hold on.
Weve never gone away from playing the way we play, Timbers coach Caleb Porter said. We tightened the screws a little more. In the first half, we were flying. This team has the mentality. Ive never questioned that."
The Timbers (9-3-11, 38 points) are third in the conference. Only eight points separate the first-place club, Real Salt Lake (12-8-5, 41 points), from the seventh-place team, FC Dallas (8-7-9, 33).
On Saturday, the first-half scoring onslaught almost began even sooner, as the Timbers missed a great chance to score in the 20th minute.
Valeri entered the box with only the goalkeeper to beat. Valeri seemed to stumble, though, and had to rush his shot to get it off before he hit the ground. He struck the ball weakly and pushed it to the right.
Valeri would more than make up for that misstep, though. In the 26th minute. he lined up for a corner kick on the right side and sent a flawless ball into the middle top of the 6-yard box. Johnson timed his run perfectly. Johnson went airborne as he reached the ball and knocked a header to the left of goalkeeper Raul Fernandez.
I beat my man to the ball, Johnson said. I tried to put power behind it. It was a good finish.
Before Timber Joey could even slice a piece of the ceremonial tree, FC Dallas evened the score.
Fabian Castillo passed along the ground to fellow midfielder Mauro Diaz, who was just outside the 18-yard box. Diaz took a touch before sending a rolling shot inside the right post for a 1-1 tie.
Five minutes later, the Timbers pulled ahead again. Valeri dribbled through the middle of the field and, with defenders crashing down on him, slipped a pass into the 18-yard box. By the time Nagbe reached the ball, he had only Fernandez to beat. Nagbe's blistering shot found the top left corner, and the Timbers had a 2-1 lead.
Valeri has a franchise-record 10 assists this season, including assists on the last six goals the Timbers have scored.
Im happy because I try to help our team, he said. We are a very good attacking team, and I try to help and (play) my role.
Said Porter: (Valeri) is exactly what we wanted him to be a playmaker. Hes a final passer. Hes a guy who sets people up. Hes the creator, and hes the guy who should be setting people up. Hes been tremendous this year.
The half ended without any more fireworks. Each club had six shots. Portland put two on frame; Dallas had three on goal. The Timbers had .530 percent of the possession to FC Dallas .470.
In the second half, FC Dallas tried to chase the match, while the Timbers tried to defend and look for opportunities to counterattack. The match got very physical with both sides committing hard fouls that sent players to the turf.
Referee Allen Chapman, who did not issue a yellow card in the first half, went to the book four times in the second half, giving each club two cautions.
Portland was able to handle the physicality and close down the match.
It was a professional performance, Porter said. The second half, a lot of the time its about managing the game, and we managed it brilliantly for the last 20 minutes. In MLS, its not always going to be pretty. Youve got to grind through it and get it done.
The Timbers finished with 12 shots, six on goal. Dallas had 13 shots, four on frame. Portland had .536 percent of the possession to Dallas' .464.
The Timbers now enter a busy week. Portland plays host to Real Salt Lake on Wednesday and travels north to meet the Seattle Sounders on Sunday. Both matches have enormous playoff ramifications.
One game down; the next one is Salt Lake, Porter said. Were in the final stretch. We want to hit the last stretch running. We want to sprint. Were going to put everything we have into every game.