Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers: Answering big questions and looking ahead

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Timbers have one foot in the Western Conference final after a fantastic showing in Seattle.

It looks like Cascadia, and maybe the Western Conference, belongs to the Portland Timbers. That it thanks to a 2-1 win at the Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals, which has them 90 minutes from the biggest bragging rights the northwest has ever had and a spot in the conference final. Not bad for a club in its first MLS postseason.

Ryan Johnson put the Timbers in front just 15 minutes in when his splendid near post run was picked out by Jack Jewsbury. A neat header later and Portland had quieted the Seattle crowd. CenturyLink Field went dead silent in the 67th minute when Darlington Nagbe scored a fantastic goal and maybe sealed the tie. Osvaldo Alonso pulled a late goal back for the Sounders, but they still trail 2-1 going to Portland, where the Timbers had the best home mark of any team in the league this season.

Five questions answered

Before each game in the MLS Cup Playoffs, we ask five questions. Here's how we thought the game answered them.

1. Can Portland stretch Seattle's midfield?

Unequivocally, yes. Both of Portland's goals came because they forced Seattle -- in their diamond midfield -- to defend them wide and when the Sounders couldn't get there, the Timbers had chances at goal. Jewsbury had ages to get a cross in down the right, picked out Johnson and that put Portland up 1-0. A good switch by the Timbers freed up Kalif Alhassan to break down the Sounders defense, which resulted in Nagbe's goal. If the Sounders played with two outside midfielders, those chances would not have been there, but they opted for the diamond and paid for it.

2. How good is Clint Dempsey?

Dempsey was not nearly good enough against the Timbers and Diego Chara deserves a lot of credit for that. The Timbers midfielder rarely gave Dempsey any time and space to do anything and while the Sounders kept trying to get the ball to Dempsey, he never had anywhere to go with it. Dempsey played his best match as a Sounder on Wednesday against the Rapids, but Chara ensured he wouldn't be nearly as good on Saturday.

3. Will Caleb Porter go for the win?

Porter has always been a proactive, attacking manager, but he had never managed a two-legged playoff before so would he still go for goal being away in a first leg? Nobody was quite sure heading into Saturday's match, but after a bit of a shaky start, it became clear that his team wasn't going to play too conservative. The Timbers may have been more cautious than usual, but they were still putting men forward, looking to pull the Sounders out with their passing and going for the win.

4. Who's fit for Seattle?

The Sounders knew they would probably be without Obafemi Martins, and they were, but they hoped DeAndre Yedlin might be fit to play and he was not. Things got worse when Zach Scott went down early on and Seattle found themselves in need of fit players. It appears as if Yedlin will play in the second leg and Martins might too, but it may be too late.

5. Can the Sounders take advantage of set pieces?

Seattle had 11 corner kicks and a handful of free kicks, but came away with no goals. Sigi Schmid's decision not to start Mauro Rosales was a poor one, dooming them from the run of play as well as set pieces. As expected, the Sounders had their chances to take advantage of set pieces, but they didn't, only scoring on a long throw.

What we didn't expect

The Timbers had no nerves: With a team short on experience that has never played together in the postseason and is led by a first-year manager, it would have been normal for them to come out a little bit shaky. The Rapids and Impact showed earlier in the week what could happen when inexperienced sides get to the postseason, but the Timbers were just fine and took it to their much more experienced rivals.

The big takeaway

Seattle is just about done: Once again, the Sounders have been undone by a first leg. Last year's scoreless draw with Salt Lake in the first leg seemed to have solved their first leg problems, but they were back again on Saturday and now they are a goal down heading to the league's best home team for the second leg. It would be premature to bury the Sounders now, but if you want to start digging the hole, go for it.

Man of the Match

Diego Chara: If the Sounders were going to win, they were going to need a big match from Dempsey and Chara almost single-handedly ensured that the Seattle start wouldn't have a chance to spark the home side. His range is always outstanding, but he showed fantastic discipline to not get pulled out, focus on Dempsey and be physical without committing too many fouls. Nagbe was also great, and his match-winning goal was tremendous, but once Chara locked up Dempsey, the Timbers were never going to lose.

What's next

The second leg should be almost a formality for the Timbers. It would be completely shocking for them to lose at home, especially on the smaller JELD-WEN Field pitch, where they should be able to bog down the match and make it tough for Dempsey to find space. The crowd should be absolutely electric and ready to celebrate a place in the Western Conference final, while the Sounders may have to start thinking about life after Sigi Schmid. Then again, weirder things have happened than a Sounders comeback.

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