KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers spent 90-plus minutes last Sunday in an exhausting, mentally taxing showdown that ultimately ended in a scoreless draw.
Sporting KC captain Matt Besler expects a similar style of game Thursday night.
Two of the most successful and passionately supported teams in Major League Soccer will meet in Kansas City for the second leg of their home-and-home, aggregate-goal playoff. One will leave as Western Conference champion and head to MLS Cup while the other will be done for the season.
"That first game was physical," Besler said. "We expected that just because it's the playoffs and both teams want to start that way, and us being away from home, we wanted to make sure we matched their intensity to start the game.
"I expected the game to settle down at some point," he continued, "but it never did. The first 15 minutes, 20 minutes of any playoff game is going to be intense. It's going to be back and forth, there are going to be fouls, but I expected somebody to have some possession. Nobody really enjoyed the ball. It was back and forth. It was frantic. It was up and down for 90 minutes."
It left both teams in a precarious position in the return leg.
The tiebreaker in MLS playoff games is away goals, and Sporting KC was unable to find the net in Portland despite a few good chances in the second half. Johnny Russell had the best of them when he sent a shot over the crossbar, and Daniel Salloi had a good attempt in stoppage time knocked away.
That means Sporting KC needs to either win the game outright Thursday or forge another scoreless draw, at which point penalty kicks would be used to determine who advances.
If the Timbers win or manage a draw with any number of goals, they would head to MLS Cup.
"We've played half the series now and both teams know the situation we're in," Besler said. "We know the away goals. We know we're tied. If we win, we advance. We know all these different things, the different factors. I think both teams know what they need to get out of the game."
Everyone on both sides expects a tense affair. Whoever gets the first goal will dictate the rest of the match.
"We have to go there and try to get a win," Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said. "We have to go there with the mentality that it's one game, like it is in the regular season, and we have to go there and try to get a win. Prepare the plan, prepare the players to make sure that we get there, recover a few of the guys that were not available (Sunday) and then make sure we go there to win."
Sporting KC, which hasn't played for an MLS Cup since winning the 2013 title, should be confident in playing at Children's Mercy Park, where they were 10-2-5 during the regular season. They are also an absurd 15-2-4 at home during the MLS playoffs.
Peter Vermes' club also should be confident in that they've shut out the Timbers three times this season, meaning it may take just one goal on what could be a sloppy field to win the game.
"Every team in the world would say playing at home is better than playing away in any sport," said the Sporting KC manager, who had to relocate practice this week indoors after a blizzard swept through the region on Sunday. Several inches of snow covered the field but it should melt by Thursday night.
"It's not easy to win away from home," Vermes said. "I also think our players when they're at home play with a different type of intensity, confidence, and I think that has a lot to do with our fans."
Much like Portland, the stands are always packed when Sporting KC plays. That should also contribute to an intense, lively atmosphere for the second leg of the Western Conference finals. Sporting KC handled it well enough in Portland and now it's up to the Timbers to handle the road crowd in Kansas City.
"We hope to impose our style on the game," Sporting KC defender Seth Sinovic said. "We're in front of our home fans – we know we'll get that extra boost from them. But we definitely want to bring the game to Portland. It was a hard-fought 0-0 game on Sunday but we're on our home turf now and we are extremely confident to come away with a win."