That was the worst and the best PK shootout I’ve ever seen.

I don’t know how. I think that’s the part of relativity that can’t be reconciled with quantum mechanics. I think that’s where Einstein just kind of threw up his hands and invented the cosmological constant.

Wherever that kind of magic comes from, what matter is that the Portland Timbers suvived in spite of themselves, winning the PK shootout 7-6 over Sporting KC following a 2-2 draw after extra time. They’ll move on to host the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday in the Western Conference of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs, while SKC will go home.

It’s a cruel game, but it is damn entertaining. Especially ‘keeper PKs.


1. Run Like Hell

Through 75 minutes Portland were the much better team, even if the scoreboard only read 1-0. They were able to collapse the Sporting defense, robbing the visitors of width in transition and forcing them to defend with their fullbacks tucked in.

Why? Because Darlington Nagbe was always a threat to go up the gut with the ball on his foot:

As that clip pretty clearly shows, you need extra men in the central channel to protect against that sort of thing. So Sporting were narrow, and Portland were able to get a ton of the ball in good spots, and eventually they turned a purple patch of form into an ugly-but-beautiful Rodney Wallace goal.

None of this was particularly surprising, given the way these two teams had been playing recently.


2. Echoes

Timbers fans have become used to these late-season runs, and Caleb Porter’s record in September and October over the past three years speaks to his ability to carve out an effective identity for his ever-changing group over the course of a season.

What this team has not lost, though, is the propensity to flatten out defensively. By “flatten out” I mean that, when they are protecting a result, they drop their backline deeper and more central, stretch their midfield line further across the entire field, and tether the two lines more tightly together.

Sometimes this is the right idea. In this particular game, it was not the right idea, because flattening out just invites the opposition to get into a rhythm.

Sporting had nothing before the 75th-minute tactical switch from Portland – they’d generated four shots, only one of which was on goal. None were from any form of sustained possession, and there was little reason to think they were going to start stringing passes together. They could barely get into the final third.

But then Portland flattened out and spent the rest of regulation booting the ball out of their own end:

This tactical choice was exacerbated by a personnel choice, when defensive midfielder George Fochive was subbed in for winger Lucas Melano in the 85th minute. Portland switched from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 and defended even deeper. Sporting eventually got a bunch of corners, Graham Zusi got an open cross, and Kevin Ellis found the equalizer late in regulation.

It was a textbook example of how not to defend a lead against a team that’s struggling in attack. And after Kriztian Nemeth’s goal late in the first stanza of extra time, it looked like it would cost the Timbers a win.


3. Learning To Fly

Sporting don’t need an overhaul this offseason, but they do need to get a dominant aerial presence in their backline. I’m not going to bag on Ellis here — he’s been a serviceable-to-good defender this season, has a knack for coming up with big goals, and you can play him at three spots.

But he’s a liability defending restarts. It’s not just because of his height (5-foot-9 is small for a central defender), but because he’s prone to the type of ball-watching that costs points:

It’s a weird sort of proclivity, since he’s such an aggressive and attentive defender in the run of play. But other than Ramses Sandoval, nobody was more asleep in the build-up to that goal. And since it’s the 118th minute, that was kind of a big deal.

Regardless, give the Timbers credit. They could have packed it in after the Nemeth goal, and then they could have choked away the shootout about a dozen times. The fact that they managed not to against a team that, yes, knows quite well how to win trophies and shootouts, says a lot about them.

Now we’ll get to see if they have any gas left in the tank when Vancouver come calling on Sunday.

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