By TYLER GRAY
SANDY, Utah – In a matchup of two of the top teams in Major League Soccer, Real Salt Lake showed why they have the best record in the league, while the Portland Timbers showed the weaknesses of an improving team that still hasn’t reached its peak.
RSL rode sharp passing and some quality finishing, along with some outstanding team defense, to beat the Timbers 2-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday night.
Alvaro Saborio opened the scoring with a seventh-minute header of a Kyle Beckerman pass, then helped provide the eventual game-winner when he laid a ball off to Joao Plata that the Ecuadorian striker slotted past Donovan Ricketts.
The Timbers put up a fight late in the match, with Diego Valeri’s stoppage-time header giving the visitors some life, but RSL’s defense held on to secure a place in the U.S. Open Cup Final against D.C. United on Oct. 1 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“I think scoring early was big for us,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis said. “Reward ourselves for the momentum that we create at the beginning of matches is always important. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that lately. A lot of our matches we’ve scored early goals lately.”
RSL jumped out to an early lead when Beckerman dummied Portland left back Ryan Miller and sent a cross to the back post and an unmarked Saborio. RSL’s all-time leading scorer took full advantage, rising up to head the ball back across the goalmouth, off the post and into the net, to the delight of the record semifinal crowd.
Portland had its fair share of chances throughout the first half as well, with both Will and Ryan Johnson getting a share of the action.
Ex-RSL player Will Johnson had probably the best chance for the Timbers in the first period when he took a shot from the center of the penalty box. In a battle between two former teammates, RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando made a spectacular save on the ball, getting a glove to it and preserving the lead.
“The ball came across and I saw [Will] come through the middle when the ball was in the air,” Rimando said. “I stayed low and reacted to it and made the save to my left.”
Timbers forward Ryan Johnson also had a header rebound off the post, coming agonizingly close to leveling the match right before the half.
After the break, RSL doubled their lead through the feet of Plata, who hit a screamer past Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts from 25 yards out.
Plata brushed away any praise after the match, simply saying, “It was a good play between everybody. I feel really happy, but the more important thing is to get the win.”
Kreis gushed about Plata’s recent performance.
“Joao has played very, very well now for about six weeks,” Kreis said. “He’s really done just about everything we’ve asked him to do. [He] deserves to be probably starting in a lot more matches than he has in the last six weeks.”
Portland pressed higher and higher for goals as time ran out and were finally rewarded in the second minute of stoppage time when Valeri had a moment of individual brilliance, following up his own saved shot with a header to pull RSL within a goal.
“It’s tough,” said Timbers head coach Caleb Porter. “You have to come and play one of the best teams in the league on their home field, that’s a tall order.
“You know, we’re disappointed, but at the end of the day we have everything to play for in the league and this game, this loss doesn’t change that,” Porter said. “We’ve made it further than we’ve ever made it. You know, we’re still not satisfied. They wanted to win it, but you have to keep it in perspective.”
RSL will now host D.C. United on Oct. 1 in their first ever U.S. Open Cup final appearance. Kreis didn’t mince words when asked about the upcoming match.
“We’ll be playing against a D.C. United team that has struggled this year,” he said. “It’ll be in our building, we’ll be the favorites, and we will see if we can do what we have never done before, which is actually win one of those damn games.”