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.”

source: Getty Images
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.

U.S. Open Cup roundup: Poku lifts Miami; Red Bulls, Cincy win on PKs

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While MLS represents the majority of the remaining clubs in this year’s U.S. Open Cup, one side continues to defy the odds.

[ MORE: Minnesota United adds Hearts midfielder Sam Nicholson ]

Miami FC reached their first quarterfinal in club history after knocking off Atlanta United late on Wednesday, behind a goal and an assist from Kwadwo Poku. The victory for Miami sets up a date with FC Cincinnati — who pulled off an unbelievable shootout win against the Chicago Fire.

Meanwhile, the New York Red Bulls and New England Revolution both advanced on the night with wins over the Philadelphia Union and D.C. United, respectively. The Red Bulls and Revs will meet in the final eight as well.

Sporting KC kept its hope of hoisting a fourth U.S. Open Cup title alive on Wednesday with a 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo. The 2015 winners will take on FC Dallas — who defeated the Colorado Rapids on Tuesday night.

Here are all the results from tonight’s Open Cup action.

Houston Dynamo 0-2 Sporting KC
New England Revolution 2-1 D.C. United
Miami FC 3-2 Atlanta United
New York Red Bulls 1-1 (5-3 on PKs) Philadelphia Union
FC Cincinnati 0-0 (3-1 on PKs) Chicago Fire

Late action (10:30 p.m. ET kick off)

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Seattle Sounders
LA Galaxy vs. Sacramento Republic

Report: City Football Group set to expand outreach with Girona deal

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City Football Group appears on the verge of adding to its global outreach, and it’s next destination looks to be in Spain.

[ MORE: Are Southampton’s days of selling behind the club? ]

The group of investors, which are known for controlling Premier League side Manchester City, are reportedly nearing a deal to purchase a partial stake in Spanish club Girona — which is set to make its La Liga debut in 2017/18.

CFG is said to be gaining a near “50 percent” stake in the club, with the rest of the club owned by Media Base, a company owned by Pep Guardiola‘s brother, Pere.

Over recent years, CFG has vastly expanded its ownership outreach and currently has a stake in five clubs around the world, with Girona set to be the sixth.

MLS side New York City FC, Australian A-League side Melbourne City FC, Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos and Club Atletico Torque in Uruguay are all part of the CFG enterprise, alongside Man City.

New York Red Bulls ink goalkeeper Luis Robles to new deal

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The “Iron Man” will keep up his amazing journey with the New York Red Bulls, after signing a new deal with the club on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder on verge of joining Los Angeles FC ]

Goalkeeper Luis Robles has extended his contract with the reigning Eastern Conference champions, as the American continues to raise his consecutive starts streak, which stands at 157.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed in the club’s release.

Robles joined the Red Bulls back in 2012 after playing in Germany, and the shot-stopper hasn’t missed a start ever since.

Report: Minnesota United adds Hearts midfielder Sam Nicholson

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Minnesota United has had its shares of ups and down in its debut MLS season, but the Loons are on the verge making an exciting young signing.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder closing in on Los Angeles FC move ]

ESPN FC is reporting that Minnesota will sign Hearts winger Sam Nicholson from the Scottish Premier League on a deal that makes him a Loon until 2019.

The young attacker is expected to join the MLS side when the summer transfer window opens on July 10.

Nicholson, 22, has played with the Edinburgh side since his youth days, and made his senior debut with the club in 2013. During his time at Hearts, Nicholson scored 16 goals in all competitions for the team.

Last season, Nicholson missed 16 matches due to a significant knee injury.

According to the report, Scottish sides Rangers and Aberdeen were also among those interested in acquiring Nicholson, while English Championship clubs Bristol City and Barnsley also reached out about the attacker.