Real Salt Lake players celebrated after Sunday's 1-0 victory at JELD-WENField, sending the team into the 2013 MLS Cup final. (Photo: Getty Images.)

What we learned from Real Salt Lake’s Sunday win in Portland

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Four years later, Real Salt Lake is back in MLS Cup, their 1-0 win Sunday  in Portland completing their 5-2 aggregate dissection of the West’s top seed. His team having claimed the title on penalty kicks in 2009, Jason Kreis has a chance to become the fifth Major League Soccer head coach to win multiple league titles.

Here are four things we learned (or, where reminded of) from Sunday’s clincher at JELD-WEN.

  • Real Salt Lake owned Portland in 2013

You’ve read it in almost every piece we’re posted this week, but after Real Salt Lake recorded their first victory this year in Portland, it’s worth noting: Real Salt Lake were undefeated in six games against the Timbers. They saw Portland out of the U.S. Open Cup, and they ended Portland’s Major League Soccer season. Of the eight games the Timbers lost this year, four were to Real Salt Lake, Kreis’s team going 4-0-2 in 2013 against the West’s top seed.

“I can’t really explain it – I honestly can’t,” Kreis said after the game about his team’s dominance of Portland. “Every game feels to me to be even … I feel like it’s more a being fortunate situation than anything else.”

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Real Salt Lake players celebrating after Sunday’s 1-0 victory at JELD-WENField, sending the team into the 2013 MLS Cup final. (Photo: Getty Images.)

The obvious difference between Real Salt Lake and Portland: The time the teams have been together. Real Salt Lake made major chances this offseason, but the core of their team has been together since their 2009 title. The Timbers rebuilt after an eighth place finish in last year’s Western Conference.

“We have so many players who have played in this system for so long and have played together for so long that I think they just have an innate sense of where they need to be at all times,” Kreis explained.

That familiarity was particularly valuable against the Timbers, a team that (at least stylistically) plays very similar to RSL. We heard about it all season, how much the two teams admired the others’ play, but with the season on the line, RSL’s experience may have been the difference. Whatever Portland could do, RSL could do better.

[MORE: Real Salt Lake earns place in MLS Cup final, downs Portland 1-0 to win Western Conference]

  • Robbie Findley stepped up. Again.

The former U.S. international seems to get a lot of attention from fans for what he can’t do, but come the postseason, bottom lines become more important. In 2009 (the last time RSL was in MLS Cup), Findley scored the second half goal that sent the final to penalties kicks. This year, back with the team after a brief spell in England, the 28-year-old has pocketed two more.

“We brought Robbie Findley back because he’s capable of scoring the goal in the biggest moments,” Kreis said, also reflecting on what the team lacked during Findley’s European sojourn.  “We’ve had forwards over the past couple of years that frankly score the goals in the soft games, but not necessarily when all the chips are done. Robbie’s waited for the exact right time to find his best form.”

It’s nothing special. Findley’s not going to launch bombs from 20-plus yards or amaze anybody with dazzling displays of skill. But what he will do is use his speed to harass (as he did in leg one) or get in the right spot (as he did on Sunday).  When the rest of the team is clicking, that’s often all you need to convert when it matters most.

[MORE: Real Salt Lake Man of the Match: Nat Borchers]

  • 2013 was just too soon for the Timbers

Go player-for-player down Portland’s squad and you see a team which, while both promising and much improved from last year, still needs to improve. That Caleb Porter was able to paper over those cracks for most of the season was a testament to the job he did during this first year; however, the team’s play at the back and up top leave room for improvement.

“We didn’t look out of place. I think that’s remarkable for our team, really 10 months into building this, to be in a position to win,” Porter said post-match. “There are some things that we learned in this series, for sure.”

He harped on the finishing, confessing it wasn’t good enough on Sunday, and in his praise of Real Salt Lake central defenders Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler, Porter highlighted a place where his team proved lacking. But only one season into the job, it was easy for Porter to maintain perspective.

“There’s definitely a progression, when you’re knocking on the door. This is our first time knocking on the door, and unfortunately, we didn’t open the door.”

“We’re not going to get worse,” Porter affirmed. “We’re going to get better.”

[MORE: Mark the date: Dec. 7 MLS Cup final will be at Sporting Park in Kansas City]

  • Difference in central defense was huge

If Borchers and Schuler play this way on Dec. 7, it’s hard to see Sporting Kansas City having any more luck than Portland or Los Angeles. Real Salt Lake’s central tandem seem imperious to whatever’s thrown at them, be it LA’s vaunted counterattack or a Portland team that had five players score at least seven goals. In four playoff games, RSL’s only conceded three times.

“Especially their center backs, they were exceptional in the box tonight,” Porter confessed. “We threw everything at them, and I thought they managed the box brilliantly.”

Contrast that with the Timbers, who were playing with their third and fourth choice center halves (Mikael Silvestre and David Horst lost to injury early in the season). A Timbers defense with the second-best goals against rate in the league gave up eight in four playoff games, unable to maintain their regular season performance when the quality of competition increased. Against RSL, Pa Modou Kah (reponsible for the turnover ahead of Sunday’s goal) and Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso were exploited.

The deficiency in defense was particularly evident against Real Salt Lake, a team that seems destined to be the measuring stick for Portland’s growth. Throw out the teams’ last meeting of the regular season, a game were Kreis seemed to set up to keep the score down (0-0 final), and RSL scored 15 goals in five games against Portland. If the Timbers really are going to be better in 2013, they need to make that number more respectable.

In the mean time, Real Salt Lake will go into the 2013 final enjoying the same edge they had in 2009: a central tandem that’s become the best in Major League Soccer.

Serie A roundup: Khedira earns Juventus three points as Napoli defeats AC Milan

ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 27:  Sami Khedira #6 with his teammates of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and Juventus FC at Stadio Olimpico on August 27, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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Sami Khedira hasn’t found the field much since moving to Juventus two summers ago, but when he does, he has a striker’s eye.

The German bagged his eighth goal for Juventus in just his 28th appearance as the Italian giants went on the road and defeated Lazio 1-0.

A poor clear attempt by Lucas Biglia saw Paulo Dybala’s lofted ball over the top fall to Khedira, and he skittered the ball across the face of goal into the far corner. The win is the second of the year for Juventus after they took down Fiorentina in their opening match.

There was a goal-fest at Stadio San Paolo as Napoli defeated AC Milan 4-2 braces from Arkadiusz Milik and Jose Callejon. Milik’s came in the first-half, with the opener in 18th minute, a lucky bounce as Dries Mertens’ shot clattered off the post and fell in Milik’s lap. He doubled Napoli’s lead in the 33rd minute with a beautiful header into the far corner, out-jumping Juraj Kucka.

The second half saw a flurry of action. A pair of goals four minutes apart saw Milan tie things up as M’baye Niang and Suso brought them level. Then, the yellow cards came flying. As a result, Kucka and Niang were both sent off for second cautions. Jose Callejon took advantage, bagging his first in the 74th and doubling his tally in stoppage time in a ridiculous bit of play that saw Alessio Romagnoli try to swat Mertens’ cross away from the goal line…yes, as in with his hands.

It’s a wonder Romagnoli wasn’t sent off for his actions. Napoli

Simone Zaza joins West Ham on loan

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Simone Zaza of Juventus in action during the Pre-Season Friendly between West Ham United and Juventus at The Olympic Stadium on August 7, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
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West Ham has gone out and made several key moves this summer, but with uncertainty up front at the moment Slaven Bilic has added another forward.

On Sunday, the Hammers announced the signing of Italian striker Simone Zaza from reigning Serie A champions Juventus. The 25-year-old joins West Ham on a season-long loan deal with an option to buy pending a certain number of matches Zaza appears in.

With new signing Andre Ayew already expected to be out for several months with a rare thigh injury and reports stating Dimitri Payet could be on his way out, Zaza provides West Ham with a solid attacking option.

Zaza notched eight goals in all competitions last season for Juventus.

Report: Southampton intend to keep Jay Rodriguez this season

SOUTHAMPTON, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 27: Jay Rodriguez of Southampton (L) celebrates after scoring his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Southampton and Sunderland at St Mary's Stadium on August 27, 2016 in Southampton, England. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)
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Despite great interest for one of the Saints’ most in-demand attackers, Jay Rodriguez will likely stay put this summer for Southampton.

[ MORE: Rashford nets late winner to keep United perfect ]

After reports surfaced yesterday suggesting as many as three other Premier League sides were preparing to move in for the 27-year-old forward, Sky Sports is now reporting that Southampton is prepared to keep Rodriguez.

While a loan move could still be an option for the Englishman, Southampton will likely want to hold onto their forward.

West Bromwich, Hull City and Sunderland have all been linked to the goalscorer, with each side severely lacking up front with options. Hull and Sunderland especially will be seeking options at forward, as the Tigers boast just 14 healthy first-team players at this time and the Black Cats only have Jermain Defoe and Fabio Borini to lean on.

[ MORE: Hazard leads charge for Chelsea in dominating win over Burnley ]

After playing a combined four minutes in Southampton’s two opening matches this season, Rodriguez came on for the Saints on Saturday during the second half and provided Claude Puel‘s group with an equalizer in their 1-1 draw.

Watch Live: West Bromwich Albion vs. Middlesbrough (Lineups, Live Stream)

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28: The West Brom crest is seen prior to the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough at The Hawthorns on August 28, 2016 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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West Bromwich Albion searches for its second win this season on Sunday when they take on Middlesbrough at 8:30 a.m. E.T. from The Hawthorns on CNBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Boro holds a narrow advantage in all-time meetings, with four wins out of eight, and Aitor Karanka‘s side certainly have the capabilities to pull off another victory against West Brom following a solid summer in the transfer window.

WATCH LIVE: West Bromwich Albion vs. Middlesbrough live online

Karanka’s men remain unbeaten through two matches, including last weekend’s narrow 2-1 victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.

West Brom remains largely intact with its starting XI as Salomon Rondon gets the start up front for the Baggies. Tony Pulis‘ side has plenty of options off the bench as well, including Saido Berahino and Craig Gardner to provide a spark.

For Middlesbrough, U.S. international Brad Guzan will get the start in goal for the first time this season, as Victor Valdes remains sidelined with a hamstring injury. Alvaro Negredo looks to continue his fine start to the season after notching a goal and two assists in his first two matches.

LINEUPS

West Bromwich Albion – Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Galloway; Phillips, Yacob, Fletcher (c), Field, McClean; Rondon.
Bench – Rose; Olsson, Gardner, Lambert, Berahino, Leko, Wilson

Middlesbrough – Guzan, Nsue, Ayala, Gibson, Barragan, Forshaw, Clayton, Stuani, Ramirez, Downing, Negredo.
Bench – 
Dimi, Bernardo, Rhodes, Reach, Fischer, De Sart, Nugent.