(Originally posted Saturday night)
The Western Conference semifinals saw hope triumph over expectation, with the league’s most talented and accomplished sides (Seattle, LA Galaxy) eliminated by teams few pegged as MLS Cup contenders at the beginning over the season. Yet eight months later Portland and Real Salt Lake are one step away from playing for Major League Soccer’s title, the West’s top two seeds set to begin their conference final Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern at Rio Tinto Stadium.
With both teams spending most of the year near the top of the Western Conference, we’ve long become accustomed to RSL and Portlands’ unexpected contenders’ status, but with each team now in MLS’s final four, it’s worth a moment’s reflection on how far they’ve come. As RSL head coach Jason Kreis reminded everybody ahead of the conference semifinals, if you would have offered him a spot in the playoffs against the LA Galaxy at the onset of the season, he would have taken it, salary cap considerations having forced the 2009 champions to wave goodbye to Jamison Olave, Will Johnson, and Fabian Espindola this offseason. As for Portland, one year ago it appeared owner Merritt Paulson had scrapped his three-year, expansion plan for MLS Cup contention. Instead, the dismissal of John Spencer (and eventual hire of Caleb Porter) proved merely an unexpected bump in the title-contending road.
Now, Portland is not only the West’s top see but the league’s hottest team ahead of their trip to Utah. Starting with a 4-0 win over Toronto on Sept. 7, Portland is unbeaten in 10 games, recording seven wins in a stretch that saw them to the top of the Western Conference, the league’s best goal difference (+21), and an MLS record for fewest losses in a season (five). Their two wins over Seattle in the conference semifinal made Portland the only team to win both of their conference semifinal games.
Unfortunately for the Timbers, all those results are mitigated by their performance against Real Salt Lake. In four 2013 meetings with RSL (three in league, one in Open Cup), Portland are 0-2-2. Their last loss came to Kreis’s side on Aug. 30 (4-2, in Sandy) while the teams’ last meeting was hailed by the Real Salt Lake coach, who saw their 0-0 draw at JELD-WEN Field as the type of tough, pragmatic performance his team would need to give come the postseason. Winless against Real Salt Lake since the franchises’ first meeting (back in 2011), the Timbers clearly have a specific, isolated problem with their conference final opponent, one they haven’t been able to identify.
“For me, the record in the playoffs is even,” said former RSL, current Portland midfielder Will Johnson, optimistically. “Whatever the regular-season statistics are, they are what they are, but this is the playoffs now so it’s a brand new slate.”
Still, when trying to explain a streak that spans three seasons, the things to look for are commonalities, and there’s nothing more endemic to Salt Lake than how they play. Though players like Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Nick Rimando have been stars throughout their run, different cast members have been able to step into what’s been a consistent approach. Throughout Kreis’s time in charge, the team has remained committed to a short passing style, usually played out of a formation reliant on a diamond midfield.
RSL did change out of that approach for their first semifinal leg in Los Angeles, something Kreis would later call a mistake. Against Portland, expect RSL to stick with what works.
“The nice thing is that we played Seattle and they play a diamond,” Porter explains. “There’s not a ton of tactical changes that weíre going to have to make. A lot of the same things we will want to exploit against Salt Lake are things we wanted to exploit against Seattle.”
That’s if truly exploiting RSL is even possible. Theirs is an approach that’s seen them finish no lower than third in the West since winning the title four years ago. Yet after eliminating the two-time defending champions in the previous round, this may be RSL’s best chance since 2009 to regain that title. In addition to their dominance over Portland, RSL beat Houston in the teams’ only meeting this year, and although they fell at home to Sporting in July, the game was a controversial one – the type of aberration that’s unlikely to be replicated should the teams meet on December 7.
But first things first. If Real Salt Lake are going to challenge for their second league title, they’ll have to dispatch the league’s hottest team. Fortunately for them, recent history tells us Portland’s yet to figure out how to get past RSL.