There were lots of great, potential Man of the Match choices around the park for Real Salt Lake, which took a nice, long stride in the direction of the 2013 MLS Cup final with its commanding performance over a potentially staggered Portland Timbers.
But when Javier Morales put his head on a late corner kick, supplying Real Salt Lake with a crucial fourth goal in the opener of this highly attractive first-leg Western Conference final, the veteran Argentine playmaker sealed the deal.
It looked like Morales had bequeathed his team a seriously intimidating three-goal advantage in the series, although Freddie Piquionne’s late, bullet header for Portland changes things a bit as this one reaches “halftime.”
Still, Morales had so very much to say about an enormous night at Rio Tinto Stadium, one that started with a surprising nervousness, but unfolded about as well as it possibly could from there for Jason Kreis’ team. Morales had a goal and two assists, but his equally important imprint was in helping the home team rule the midfield.
RSL had just 36 percent of the possession over the game’s first few minutes, a really shocking number considering how strong RSL generally is in possession, especially at Rio Tinto.
But there was Morales to calm the choppy waters. When the team’s younger midfielders in the RSL diamond, Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez, settled down – and they were both very good in two-way work over 90 minutes – Portland had very little going.
Morales didn’t just assist his team in retaining possession; his passes almost always kept the team moving forward. And that kept Portland pinned in for long stretches. When Portland tried to press, Morales was there to help RSL reliably break the pressure. And when Portland sat back, Morales guided his team in picking apart the visitors’ scrambling back line, spraying timely balls out wide to be pinged back in front of Timbers’ goal.
Morales’ early corner kick found Chris Schuler for the critical equalizer. Later, Morales helped spring Robbie Findley as RSL rookie Devon Sandoval got into the scoring act. And finally, that deflected header that gave Portland is fourth.
And this part was less noticed on Morales’ big night of attacking and steely ball handling:
On RSL’s other goal, who was it chasing all the way back, assisting Gil in defense along RSL’s right side as RSL won the ball and quickly moved the other way? That was Morales, helping to claim possession before Findley was off and running, pressuring Portland’s back line and creating the home team’s second goal.