Emulating the match day experience on display at JELD-WEN Field is something high on Orlando's to-o list.

MLS playoff preview: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers, with the Western Conference title on the line


PORTLAND, Ore. — Given two weeks, your mind can figure out how to screw things up. It’s funny like that. No matter how much how positive you think you are, how focused you think you can be, the bad stuff has a way of getting in. Strong minds have ways of dealing with that, but most of us can’t help dwelling. We’re always aware of the worst-case scenarios.

For the Portland Timbers, those worst-case scenarios are no longer just mental. Down by three goals at one point in the first leg of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final in Sandy, Utah, the playoff neophytes had to starefailure in the face. That they responded with a late goal from Frederic Piquionne salvaged their chances of making their first final (making it 4-2 just before the referee blew for full-time), but chasing two goals ahead of Sunday’s kickoff, Portland’s already had to deal with disappointment.

[REVIEW: Four-goal night leaves Real Salt Lake up two on Portland after West’s first leg]

Real Salt Lake, however, could have carried leg one’s energy into JELD-WEN Field, but instead of three or six days between games, the international break happened. With 14 days between legs, their momentum has cooled. Over a shorter period of time, they could have willed themselves to stay focused, concentrated on their short preparation period, and fed off of the positive between Utah and Oregon. Staying in their normal routine, it would have been easy to put blinders on. Instead, the 2009 champions had to ramp down, occupy all that time, and try to avoid thinking about all the ways Portland could crawl back into this match.

In that sense, there’s nothing good that can come out of this break for Real Salt Lake. All these 14 days have done is Caleb Porter a chance to figure out what went wrong in leg one. While Jason Kreis is trying to maintain his team’s focus, Porter can spend two weeks building his squad’s confidence. By Sunday’s kickoff, Portland will have walked through every scenario where they can get back into this contest.

[MORE: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Sunday’s match]

What if Portland scores early on Sunday, a goal that would change the whole dynamic of the tie? And I’m not just talking about something freaky that happens shortly after kickoff. What if Portland scores in the 44th minute? Only down one with 45 minutes left at home, the second half looks completely different.

source: Getty Images
Javier Morales put in a Man of the Match performance in leg one, recording a goal and two assists in Real Salt Lake’s 4-2 victory over Portland. (Photo: Getty Images.)

If that happens, the Timbers don’t have to open up too soon. They don’t have to take undue chances against an attack that put 13 goals on them in five games. Portland can stay with their regular approach, one that will limit the exposure of their center backs and use their pressing high through the midfield to limit RSL’s access to playmaker Javier Morales. Whether you’re protecting or chasing a lead, it’s the type of modest scenario that starts to look very realistic when you’re given 14 days to dwell.

Still, how much that matters in the face of what we know about these teams is debatable. Between the regular season, U.S. Open Cup, and leg one in Sandy, these teams have met five times in 2013. Portland has not only failed to win, they’ve only led for 40 minutes – less than nine percent of the time. They’ve never led by two. Against a team they haven’t beaten since April 2011 (the first time the franchises ever met), Portland not only needs to win. They need to win by three. A two-goal margin only gets them to penalty kicks.

[MORE: Notes on Portland ahead of the West’s decider.]

Real Salt Lake’s leading scorer, Álvaro Saborío, will be out, but he didn’t play in leg one, either. The Costa Rican international also failed to get on the board in the team’s last meeting in Portland, a 0-0, October draw that Jason Kreis called the type of game his team would need to play in the postseason. If they pull off the same trick on Sunday, they’re back in the finals.

Just as every indication ahead of Portland’s finale with Seattle said the Timbers should win that match, there’s nothing in these teams’ recent history that says Portland’s going to their first MLS Cup final. They have a large, unconvincing body of work against RSL – a collection of evidence that tells us they have no answer for Salt Lake. Two weeks might give RSL time to entertain some doubts, but they’re going to have to do a major psych-out job to offset the advantages they’ve shown throughout the season.

Unless Caleb Porter found a magic bullet during the last two weeks, history’s likely to repeat itself, though in a season that’s seen Portland claim their first playoff appearance, postseason win, and conference final berth, it’s not difficult to imagine a breakthrough win over RSL landing them in their first MLS Cup final.

[MORE: Sporting Kansas City punches ticket for MLS Cup; downs Houston in Eastern Conference final]

MLS Snapshot: Colorado Rapids 1-2 Real Salt Lake

SANDY UT - MARCH 14: Olmes Garcia #13 of Real Salt Lake celebrates his goal during their game against the Philadelphia Union at Rio Tinto Stadium on March 14, 2015 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): Real Salt Lake stays alive in the hunt for a playoff berth in the Western Conference with a crucial 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids. After falling behind early, RSL scored twice before halftime and held onto the lead for the rest of the match, moving within three points of the final playoff spot in the West. Real Salt Lake has three matches remaining, including a massive clash against the Portland Timbers, which will pretty much decide their season. For Colorado, it’s another year without playoff soccer.

[ MORE: FC Dallas clinches playoff berth ]

Three moments that mattered

16′ — Doyle heads Colorado into the lead — The former Premier League man gave the home side an early lead, thanks to a powerful header from quite a bit out. Sean St. Ledger played in a cross, where Doyle snapped a header into the top corner past Nick Rimando.

33′ — Joao Plata bends in the free kick — Trailing 1-0, Joao Plata drew RSL level with a brilliant free kick. Plata’s shot dipped over the wall and under the crossbar, as Clint Irwin stood helpless in goal for Colorado.

43′ — Mulholland fires home a volley to put RSL ahead — Luke Mulholland scored his first goal of the season, and it was a beauty. A corner kick popped out to the midfielder at the top of the box, as he rifled a shot off the bounce and into the side netting.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Luke Mulholland

Goalscorers: Doyle (16′), Plata (33′), Mulholland (43′)

Wenger lauds team spirit following Arsenal’s big win

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Arsenal put on a superb performance against Manchester United today, flying out to a three-goal lead in the opening 20 minutes of the match.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 3-0 Manchester United ]

United was stunned by the fast-paced, free-flowing Arsenal attack, unable to recover from the Gunners’ early dominance.

All of this came on the heels of a disappointing loss to Olympiacos in the Champions League, after which many questioned manager Arsene Wenger and his side.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Arsenal’s win vs. Manchester United ]

Following the big 3-0 win at the Emirates, Wenger praised his team’s spirit, saying there were outstanding performances throughout the side.

You go from Petr Cech up to Theo Walcott, and we had only outstanding performances. Sometimes we have that magic side in our game.

[Against Olympiacos] maybe we lacked a little bit of urgency and discipline, and that’s why we lost the game. But let’s not forget, last Saturday we won 5-2 at Leicester. Today we beat Man United 3-0.

[The players] have shown that we have an outstanding spirit in the squad. To respond the way we did after what happened to us, you need to have an exceptional spirit.

The Gunners’ performance today immediately silenced all the critics, as Wenger’s side put out on a display that many have been waiting for all season. The combination play of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott was brilliant, as Santi Cazorla continued to impress in the center of the midfield.

Wenger’s teams have not always been known to show strong heart and resiliency, but that’s exactly what they showed today against a Manchester United side that was in great form. Now sitting second on the table, Arsenal continues to climb up the Premier League.