BY MIKE DONOVAN AND TYLER GRAY
For the second time in three years, Real Salt Lake finds themselves in the Western Conference finals, just two games away from what would be an incredible appearance in the MLS Cup final, based on the preseason predications.
Standing in their way is Caleb Porter and his gritty yet highly clinical Portland Timbers. RSL won the season series, 1-0-2, and RSL did defeat Porter’s side in the U.S. Open Cup, but this series is up for grabs. The Timbers dispatched the Seattle Sounders with ease, 5-3, while RSL stood up to their critics with a pivotal 2-0 victory on Thursday evening at Rio Tinto Stadium, knocking the two-time defending champions Los Angeles Galaxy out of the playoffs.
The time is now for RSL to shed it’s status as underachievers, a label that wrapped itself tighter around the club following their stunning defeat at home in the U.S. Open Cup final to D.C. United. The stage is set. Two American coaches and their hard nosed team are set to battle. Which side has the edge heading into the Western Conference finals series?
Let’s take a closer look at what each team has to offer:
RSL won the regular season series, 1-0-2. RSL also defeated the Timbers in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals.
One of just five clubs to defeat the Timbers this season, Real Salt Lake was able to get two victories against Portland in 2013. The first was when RSL knocked the Oregon-club out of the U.S. Open Cup with a 2-1 victory in the Semifinals of the competition. The second came on Aug. 30 when host RSL handily defeated the Timbers, 4-2, in a match that saw the Timbers go down to 10 men before halftime after Ben Zemanski received a red card.
The two other matches both resulted in draws. The clubs combined for six goals in a Wednesday night shootout in August, while in the penultimate match of the season RSL and Portland played to a scoreless draw.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
TIMBERS: Diego Valeri (10 goals, 13 assists in regular season, 1 goal in playoffs), Will Johnson (9 goals, 5 assists in regular season, 1 goal, 1 assist in playoffs), Darlington Nagbe (9 goals, 4 assists in regular season, 1 goal in playoffs); RSL: Alvaro Saborio (12 goals, 2 assist in regular season, 0 goals, 0 assists in playoffs), Javier Morales (8 goals, 10 assists in regular season, 0 goals, 1 assist in playoffs), Chris Schuler (0 goals 0 assists in regular season, 1 goal, 0 assists in playoffs).
MATCHUP TO WATCH
This will be the fifth and sixth meeting between these two teams this season, with three times coming in the regular season and a fourth in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal match. Both sides are well-acquainted with each other and, quite frankly, probably sick of seeing each other’s faces.
The battle, however, will take place in the midfield as these are both teams that like to possess the ball and prod for an opening. The most interesting matchup to watch will be Timbers talisman, Diego Valeri, matched up against RSL’s grizzled captain, Kyle Beckerman. Valeri has been a revelation for a completely transformed Timbers side while Beckerman has kept the ship steady in Utah despite the sweeping changes that occurred in the offseason.
While numerous Timbers players have been talked about for postseason award lists, two names that don’t come up are the club’s starting fullbacks, Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury. The only US-born players to start for the club this postseason, the two have combined to give the club its most reliable players at the position since becoming a MLS franchise prior to the 2011 season.
Both Harrington and Jewsbury provide veteran leadership and stability at the back. While Harrington is more known for attacking up-field than his counterpart, Jewsbury had the assist on the Timbers first goal of this postseason and drew the penalty kick in the Timbers home playoff victory against Seattle.
If Jewsbury and Harrington continue to pick their moments correctly, the pair could play a major factor in whether or not Portland advances to the MLS Cup.
The X-factor for RSL has to be Sebastian Velasquez. The Colombian-born midfielder stepped up big in the 2-0 victory over the LA Galaxy on Thursday night. He was forced into action when RSL regular Ned Grabavoy was held out of the second leg with an injury.
Velasquez had a solid game, providing the opening goal off an unlikely header and making several key defensive plays as well to quell the Galaxy attack. He will most likely be called upon again this Sunday and he has to duplicate his steady play in order for RSL to start off on the right foot.
By Mike Donovan
In a season of firsts for Portland as a MLS club, one hurdle remains if the Timbers are to head to their first Cup Final since the 1975 Soccer Bowl. And it is the same hurdle that Portland stumbled against in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals in August, Real Salt Lake.
The Timbers have matched up with RSL four times this season, coming away with two draws and two losses. In addition to the defeat in the U.S. Open Cup, RSL also handed the Timbers its only multiple-goal loss of the season, a 4-2 pasting at Rio Tinto Stadium on Aug. 30th. Despite this, the Timbers take some confidence into the match, in part to the club’s recent nil-nil draw in Portland’s regular season home finale.
“The last time we played Salt Lake, I thought we played very well against them. It was a 0-0 draw, it wasn’t a win, but I don’t think they had a shot on goal,” Porter said. “I think that was a real positive performance. Now we just need to get the attack cranked up versus them.”
Since getting shutout by RSL, the Timbers have scored 10 goals in three matches. And the club heads into Sunday’s match on its first three-game winning streak in the club’s MLS history.
“This is what you hope to have happen with your team – you’re in a run of form at the end of the year and it just starts to grow and build and the confidence grows,” Porter said. “These guys are in a great spot right now, so we’ve just got to keep going.”
There are many other story lines heading the match, not the least of which is Timbers captain Will Johnson taking on the club where he played the last five seasons before being traded to Portland in December of 2012.
“It will be fun for me, it will be special, obviously, after playing with those guys for a long period of time,” Johnson said. “I’m a part of the Timbers now, and obviously my job is to do anything I can to help the Timbers win. It’s all business from here.”
Johnson was injured during Portland’s U.S. Open Cup loss to RSL and did not play in Portland’s two-goal defeat to the Utah club. And the Timbers captain isn’t worried about the prior matchups between the two clubs, much anyway.
“For me, the record in the playoffs is even. We’ve never played them in the playoffs so I think it’s a totally different game,” Johnson said. “Whatever the regular-season statistics are, they are what they are, but this is the playoffs now so it’s a brand new slate.”
By Tyler Gray
Will Johnson is facing off against his former team with a chance to vault his current one to the biggest stage in MLS. Two of the best young coaches in MLS will face off against each other yet again.
Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter will need to score his first victory against RSL to advance to the MLS Cup final, the Timbers are 0-2-2 this year against the claret-and-cobalt, but Jason Kreis has no intention of laying down.
RSL is looking to win their first piece of hardware since MLS Cup 2009 and the Timbers are looking to secure their first piece of hardware period.
The product on the field will be attractive and — if this season’s previous matches between these two teams are any indication — an intense one. Portland is coming off a dominating performance over their Cascadia rivals, the Seattle Sounders and RSL have just removed the 300 pound gorilla that had claimed squatter’s rights on their collective backs.
Both teams will be playing confidently and free and it should be a beautiful 120 minutes that will keep viewers glued to their seats.
Kreis had remarked before the Galaxy series that he might even prefer to play the first match of a playoff series at home. Now he will get his chance. RSL need to have a bright start at Rio Tinto in the first leg in order to pour some ice water on the Timber’s red-hot form.
Portland has scored 10 goals in its last 3 matches but will be going up against an RSL team that has allowed only two goals in its last 4 games, largely due to the insertion of a reinvigorated Chris Schuler in central defense.