The Portland Timbers established themselves as the favorites to be the Western Conference representative at the MLS Cup with a 3-1 win over FC Dallas on Sunday at Providence Park.
The Timbers jumped into the driver's seat of the match in the first minute as they almost replicated Columbus' early goal in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final earlier on Sunday.
Before FC Dallas could even settle into the match, Fanendo Adi and Darlington Nagbe put their back four under pressure with a surging move forward. Nagbe dished the ball over to Lucas Melano, whose shot was kept out by 20-year-old goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez.
Portland continued to press for its first strike for the first part of the opening stanza, and it finally was rewarded for its efforts in the 23rd minute, when Liam Ridgewell scored on a corner.
The Timbers kept pushing for their second for the rest of the first half, but they were unlucky not to find the back of the net. The main reason the Timbers were able to relentlessly move forward was the play of the defense. Diego Chara, Jorge Villafana and Alvas Powell did their best to limit the chances created by Mauro Diaz, Fabian Castillo and Michael Barrios.
The vulnerabilities of the trio rarely showed, and when they did, the visitors were unable to take advantage of free kicks in dangerous areas because they were not in an offensive rhythm.
With a second goal needed at home, Dairon Asprilla unleashed the goal of the weekend in the 53rd minute. The Colombian winger perfectly curled a shot from the right wing into the top-left corner of the net to hand the hosts a valuable two-goal advantage.
The Timbers had a brief slip-up in defense right after Ridgewell left the match for Norberto Paparatto. Two minutes after the change, FC Dallas exploited the Portland defense on a set piece and David Texeira scored what could end up being a vital away goal.
But that away goal may not mean anything because Portland struck for a third late in the game as Nat Borchers tapped in a corner. On top of that, the Timbers put together a sterling road record over the last few months of the regular season. As if things couldn't get worse for FC Dallas, Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace will return as fresh bodies to the Portland lineup after both served one-game yellow-card suspensions Sunday.
While we can't write Portland's name in Sharpie on the list of MLS Cup participants yet, it is hard to pick against Caleb Porter's side entering the second leg in a week's time at Toyota Stadium.
In Sunday's victory at home, Portland limited Texeira, Barrios and Castillo to 29, 30 and 41 touches respectively. Per WhoScored, those were three of the four lowest totals recorded by any starting field players for FC Dallas. Diaz made 63 touches, but he was held to one key pass and two shots on target.
Keeping up the same level of containment in the second leg will be difficult, but the Timbers displayed the game plan to do so on Sunday. Chara must continue to perfect the role of midfield enforcer against Diaz. The Colombian just has to hope the referee for the second leg is as lenient as Ted Unkel was in the first leg. Chara committed four fouls, but he didn't receive a booking until the 78th minute.
Powell and Villafana also have to be at their best again in order to keep Castillo and Barrios away from goal. There were a few points in the second half where Castillo got around Powell on the left wing, but the Colombian winger didn't have many options to pass to in the box because Borchers had everything sealed up in front of the Portland net.
In addition to rolling into Texas with a boatload of confidence, the Timbers boast one of the better road records in MLS. Portland tied Vancouver for a league-high seven away wins in the regular season and defeated Vancouver in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal at BC Place two weeks ago.
Since the start of August, the Timbers have road wins over Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy, Columbus and Vancouver. They also earned a point at the start of August in San Jose. The only road loss during that stretch came on August 30 to Seattle. But the last road defeat before that was a 4-1 shortcoming at the hands of FC Dallas.
FC Dallas, which won 13 of its 17 regular-season home games, does have one thing going in its favor thanks to Texeira's away goal, but Oscar Pareja's side did little to back up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. An early strike in the second leg would change everything in the Western Conference final, but no one expects Portland to sit back and defend for 90 minutes even if the game remains scoreless for most of the first half.
Portland will no doubt enter Toyota Stadium as the favorite to clinch a spot in the MLS Cup, but winning in Texas will require the same, if not a better, effort as the Timbers produced in the first leg.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.