What We Learned from Real Salt Lake’s dismantling of the Portland Timbers


In the wake of Real Salt Lake’s 4-2, opening leg win over Portland, here’s What We Learned after leg one of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final:

  • Javier Morales is no Clint Dempsey

Where Portland did a reasonable job of containing Seattle’s focal point in the conference semifinals, they completely failed to restrain Javier Morales – a player who has mastered the tip of a diamond midfield in Major League Soccer. The Argentine attacker played a part in three of his team’s goals, finishing the night with one score and two helpers. As much as any performance since his 2011 ankle injury, this was classic Javier Morales, creating seven scoring chances while leading his team in passes (49).

So why was he so successful where Dempsey wasn’t? It didn’t appear as if Portland gave him less attention than they showed Dempsey. Of course, whereas Seattle’d been playing their diamond for about a month, Real Salt Lake’s been doing so for years, leaving them far more familiar with how to deal with the Timbers’ pressure. Sometimes that resulted in Morales dropping deep to spur connections around Portland’s pressing. Other times that meant running into space behind the midfield, making himself into an outlet for Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran, and rest of the RSL players tasked with handling Portland’s pursuit.

Bottom line: Morales was much more effective than Dempsey. For Portland, the difference was huge.

[MORE: Real Salt Lake Man of the Match: Javier Morales]

  • Short passing out of problems

The virtues of Real Salt Lake’s approach paid off on Sunday, their skill on the ball helping them exploit Portland’s pressure. Numerous times we saw play, particularly down RSL’s right, connect two or three short passes in succession, pulling Will Johnson or Diego Chara toward the ball before a teammate was found higher up. Putting theory into practice, RSL used Portland’s pursuit against them.

The team’s first and third goals provide examples. Play down the right side just past the half-hour mark ended with Javier Morales behind Portland left back Michael Harrington, who was helping to apply pressure higher up. Morales won the corner, delivered a perfect ball to Chris Schuler, and saw his team go up one.

On the team’s third goal, Diego Chara missed Rodney Wallace with a pass, and as Portland pursued a quick turnover, the play went from Luis Gil wide to Tony Beltran and in to Javier Morales, who quickly found Robbie Findley making a run deep on the right. This time, however, Findley gets his cross through the box to Devon Sandoval, who gives RSL a two-goal lead.

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

  • source: Getty Images
    Real Salt Lake forward Robbie Findley took advantage of Portland’s Futty Danso for his team’s second goal. (Photo: Getty Images.)

    There’s only so much midfielders, goalkeepers can do to  protect defenders

As the Timbers went from mild curiosity to MLS Cup contender, many looked at their star-deprived defense and asked how they produced the second-best goal prevention record in Major League Soccer. Futty Danso was a backup on last year’s team. Pa Modou Kah was an emergency, mid-season signing. How did a team that lost their top two central defenders forge such a great defensive?

Will Johnson, that’s how. And Diego Chara. And Donovan Ricketts. Provide protection in front, cover their mistakes at the back, and a central pairing can look a lot better than they actually are.

But there’s only so much a midfield or goalkeeper can do. In one-on-one assignments on set pieces, defenders have to do better than Danso did on Chris Schuler. And that Kyle Beckerman long ball minutes later? Danso can not make that into a goal scoring chance for Robbie Findley. You don’t get assists on the other team’s goals.

Danso picked a bad time to have his worst night of the season, and while you’d like to give RSL some credit on those first two goals, those scores are on Portland’s central defender. In both cases, those goals are prevented by most MLS central defenders.

  • 2013 postseason = Chris Schuler’s coming out party?

Real Salt Lake conceded twice, but neither can be hung on the 26-year-old defender, who is playing at a national team-caliber level. That seems knee-jerk given Schuler only played 16 games in the regular season, but this is a player whose talent has been evident for some time. It allowed Real Salt Lake to trade Jamison Olave this offseason, and this postseason, it’s allowed Schuler to be MLS’s best defender.

It goes beyond the two goals he’s scored, though those help. Of the three goals RSL’s allowed this postseason, he had a part in none, while his discipline has allowed him to make crucial clearances against Los Angeles (leg one), help contain the league’s best counter (also leg one), and co-anchor a defense that held the Galaxy to two shots on goal in an elimination game. Tonight, Schuler made a game co-leading three interceptions, his effort helping hold Portland to three shots on Nick Rimando.

More succinctly: Schuler is doing everything you want. From his distribution to his positioning, his reads and his execution, he has been one of the postseason’s standouts, giving RSL a central pairing capable of carrying them to a title.

source: Getty Images
Caleb Porter, seen talking to an official Sunday night, saw his team concede four goals for the second time this season. Both times, it was against RSL. (Photo: Getty Images.)
  • Portland still have no plan for Real Salt Lake

After eliminating Seattle, Portland’s players downplayed RSL’s dominance of the teams’ season series. Some didn’t even realize the Timbers haven’t beaten RSL since 2011. The postseason’s different, the general feeling held. Whatever happened before is irrelevant now.

As such, it’s worth noting the similarities between tonight’s game and the 4-2 loss Portland suffered in Utah on Aug. 30. Those are the only times Portland’s given up four goals under Caleb Porter, and each time late consolation prevented the scoreline from being worse. The games were more one-sided than the final scores say.

Even if we don’t know the exact cause, it’s naive to think there isn’t something special about RSL – a characteristic that makes them particularly difficult for Portland to conquer. Of the seven losses the Timbers have suffered this season, three have been to Jason Kreis’s team, who’ve failed to lose to Portland in five 2013 meetings (counting Open Cup).

My theory: A stylistic like-for-like leaves the side with years’ experience in their system at a huge advantage over a team that’s played together for eight months. RSL’s players know Portland’s tendencies because the teams are of the same mind. They know where the Timbers can be exploited, and they have the experience to execute.

How does Caleb Porter beat that? He can’t fast forward his team’s progress. He can’t jump to the point where his team is as familiar with this approach as Real Salt Lake.

For all the talk of Plan As and Plan Bs, there may be no plan for RSL. Porter may need a master stroke.

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


Real Salt Lake’s dominance of the Portland Timbers continues. With goals from Chris Schuler, Robbie Findley, Devon Sandoval, and Javier Morales, RSL claimed a 4-2 win over the West’s top seed, giving Jason Kreis’s team a two-goal in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final lead ahead of the teams’ second leg on November 24th.

An opening goal from former RSL midfielder Will Johnson and a last moment header from Frederic Piqionne served as bookends for the hosts’ dominant performance, with the win improving Real Salt Lake to 3-0-2 against the Timbers in 2013. Portland are  winless in their last nine meetings against the 2009 champions, the loss ending the Timbers’ 10-match unbeaten run. It’s second time this season the Timbers have given up more than four goals, Sunday’s outburst matching Real Salt Lake’s four-star performance in the teams’ last meeting at Rio Tinto (4-2, Aug. 30).

Portland will have two weeks to rebound from their seventh loss of the season, but having been outscored by the Claret and Cobalt 13-8 this year, the Timbers allowed RSL to take a huge step toward their second MLS Cup final.

Portland got on the board first, a joint effort from Will Johnson and Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando. On a restart 26 yards from goal, Rimando was beaten well inside his right post by a shot through the top of his wall. Jumping behind the wall as the shot was taken, Rimando couldn’t get his right hand to prevent his former teammate’s opening goal.

The breakthrough allowed what had been a somewhat even match to descend into one-way play, with Real Salt Lake taking control of a Timbers side that seemed content to rest on their lead. But much like in their first leg against Seattle, Portland was allowing shots but not chances through the first half-hour, the hosts attempting six shots with only one finding Donovan Ricketts’ gloves.

In the 35th minute, however, RSL broke through, with Javier Morales earning then delivering the corner that tied the match. From the right, Morales’s ball to the middle of the penalty area saw Chris Schuler out-muscle Mamadou Danso. Rising above the Portland defender while keeping his opposition on the ground, Schuler finished into the left of goal from nine yards out, making it 1-1.

Six minutes later, Danso was at fault on RSL’s go-ahead goal, misplaying a long ball from Kyle Beckerman. As he tried to turn to get his body between the ball and the oncoming Robbie Findley, the Gambian international’s poor touch saw the ball kicked into his own penalty area, with Findley’s head of steam allowing the RSL attacker to get to the ball before Donovan Ricketts. The former U.S. international’s first touch beat Ricketts to give RSL a 2-1 lead.

After a half in which they’d outshot Portland 13-5 (5-1, shots on goal), RSL doubled their lead early in the second half, a midfield giveaway by Diego Chará leading to a counter attack down the Timbers’ left. Morales’ ball toward the corner for Findley allowed the forward to find his strike partner, Devon Sandoval, with a ball across the top of the six-yard box. The rookie from New Mexico beat Jack Jewsbury to put home the hosts’ third of the night.

In the 82nd minute, Morales capped his one goal, two assist evening, heading Joao Plata’s corner off Frederic Piquonne and into Ricketts’ net, giving RSL a three-goal edge. Moments earlier, a reflex save from Ricketts had prevented a Luis Gil header from converting a Morales cross but conceded a corner. With a quick run near post, RSL’s normal corner kick taker converted one of his own, completing the Argentine’s stellar evening.

Deep into stoppage time, a cross from Jewsbury found Piquionne between central defenders, the former French international heading home to cut RSL’s lead to two – a goal which may damper what was an otherwise dominant performance from RSL. Whereas a three-goal lead carries the weight of being potentially decisive in a two-legged series, a two-goal margin looks surmountable.

But if Portland’s to conquer that obstacle, they first need to come up with a plan to derail RSL. To this point, Caleb Porter’s  Timbers have yet to get a a win over their conference final opponents, let alone a two-goal one.


Real Salt Lake: 35′ Chris Schuler, 41′ Robbie Findley, 48′ Devon Sandoval, 82′ Javier Morales

Portland: 14′ Will Johnson, 93′ Frederic Piquionne


Real Salt Lake: Nick Rimando; Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert (33′ Lovel Palmer); Luis Gil, Kyle Beckerman, Sebastián Velasquez; Javier Morales (86′ Ned Grabavoy); Robbie Finley (66′ Joao Plata), Devon Sandoval

Unused subs: Jeff Attinella, Olmes Garcia, Khari Stephenson, Cole Grossman

Portland: Donovan Ricketts; Jack Jewsbury, Mamadou Danso, Pa Modou Kah, Michael Harrington; Diego Chara, Will Johnson; Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri (53′ Kalif Alhassan), Rodney Wallace (75′ Frederic Piquionne); Ryan Johnson (59′ José Valencia)

Unused subs: Milos Kocic, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Sal Zizzo, Ben Zemanski

MLS Playoff Preview: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake

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(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.

source: Getty Images
Timbers’ captain Will Johnson is in his first season with Portland after five years in Salt Lake, winning an MLS Cup with RSL in 2009. (Photo: Getty Images.)

“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.

Thinking through what we now know about Jason Kreis’s links to NYCFC


Last night on ESPN, Alexi Lalas gave us some new information about Jason Kreis and NYCFC. Thanks to Brian Straus at Sports Illustrated, already knew there was interest, that Kreis had flown to meet with U.K.-based deciders, but we didn’t know much about the other side of the story. Why was Kreis entertaining leaving RSL?

According to Lalas, an initial contract offer made earlier this year was “lowball” one. It’s not hard to see where that information came from (no club is going to call their own offer “lowball”). Since, RSL has offered Kreis another deal, one that would make him the third-highest paid coach in the league. Only Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid could big-time the RSL boss.

Steve’s covered all this before, but with Kreis’s future back in the news (and sure to stay in the news throughout the playoffs), it might be worth another swing at this log; though, if you read that post, feel free to gloss over this. A lot of it is just a different guy’s take on the same speculation.

For a team like RSL, that’s a big commitment, one that’s helped keeps anything related to lowballing out of consideration. Now it’s about life style versus opportunity.

On one hand, it’s about a long relationship with the team and a firmly established life in the area. His kids are entering high school, so to pick up and move (or, spend major time away from his family) is a decision that transcends any short-term misgivings about an out-of-date offer. Kreis wouldn’t uproot his family to play out a grudge.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting the extremely unique nature of the NYCFC job. As we saw in the lead-up to and announcement of MLS’s 20th team, this is going to be a focal point franchise. Whereas New York Red Bulls are out in Harrison, NYCFC is in the league’s backyard. They’re going to have huge financial resources, presumably access to player resources from Manchester City, and will carry other benefits of their link to one of the biggest clubs in the world.

It’s already a $100 million commitment from City’s owners (some Yankees money is in there, too). They’re not going to neglect it.

Think about it: City’s a club that operates at the highest levels of the game. The people you’ll be linked to (like current president, former Barcelona president Txiki Begiristain) carry influence throughout the European game. Sure, you’re not going to be running into them in the company mess hall, but you’ll be working with people that come from their circles. Impress on the ground in MLS, and you could gain access to a world that’s been cut off to American coaching talent.

You may not be the next coach at Manchester City, but with your name in that network, maybe you find yourself interviewing for jobs in Holland or Belgium? Maybe even a club down the English ladder, where coaches and executives from City have taken new positions?

Those are the implications of the NYCFC job. Not only will the club have a number of competitive advantages (thanks to their assumed backing), but there are huge professional implications. For Kreis, only 40 years old, this maybe a line in the sand. If he’s ever going to leave Utah, it will be for an opportunity like this.

New York City FC (NYCFC) will start play in MLS in 2015 as the league’s 20th franchise. While that would mean Jason Kreis, their potential first coach, may sit for one season while waiting for their opener, the opportunities surrounding the club may be too good to pass up.

That’s the other thing about the Kreis-to-NYCFC story. The guy’s been at RSL since 2007. Most coaches don’t get that long with a team, and even those that do run out of steam. Their message gets old. They run out of ways to make things new. They’ve accomplished all they can, or maybe they just want to test themselves against a different set of challenges. Kreis clearly loves Utah, but he’s a competitive man with competitive ambitions. At some point, staying in Utah may feel like a concession – a young man settling in long before he needs to.

In that sense, the only wrinkle is the year off. NYCFC doesn’t start play for another year, but for a man who went straight from playing to coaching, the year off may be plus. We saw Pep Guardiola, 41 when he left Barcelona, spend a year in New York recharging before taking on his new challenge. While Kreis won’t be completely off (presumably, he’ll be helping the franchise prepare for Day 1), he’ll be able to recharge.

How many of us get that kind of opportunity, to step away for a year and regroup? Better yet, how many of us could use it?

It’s a terrible situation for Real Salt Lake, for whom NYCFC wasn’t even on the landscape when they offered Kreis a new deal in January. Since then, a team that’s supposed to be rebuilding stayed a contender, and a new, attractive option has walked into the room. Kreis has gotten to know new owner Dell Loy Hansen, and the team’s new offer reflects the team’s desire to keep somebody who’s become iconic, but now, the situation is beyond RSL’s control.

There’s the growing feeling that Kreis will go, and there’s little RSL can do about it. Who knows if getting him signed to a contract extension in January would have done anything but put them in a position to get compensation. The NYCFC job is just that unique, and for somebody like Jason Kreis, it’s probably an opportunity too good to pass up.

What we learned from LA Galaxy’s one-goal win over Real Salt Lake

  • Both teams wanted more

The final score — a 1-0 home win, somewhat common in two-legged affairs — tells you nothing about how the match unfolded. Los Angeles looked good for a goal in the first half but were pushed to halftime scoreless, their forays wide-to-in inside the penalty area continually (if often desperately) rebuked. Even after breaking through near the start of the second half, LA continued to threaten, seemingly ready to spend the match’s final 40 minutes probing for an all-important second goal.

But then RSL adjusted, almost as if the whole plan was to wait 60 minutes before trying to steal one late. The introductions of Sebastian Velasquez and Robbie Findley injected some fresh, quick feet, with Devon Sandoval coming on to try and push in a surprise equalizer.

With RSL opening up in pursuit of that goal, they looked destined to give up a second, but LA could never put the pieces together on one of their numerous counterattacks. The game may have ended 1-0, but that wasn’t the teams’ intention.

[MORE: Franklin blast all that separates LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake after leg one]

  • LA can silence RSL’s biggest stars

Where was Álvaro Saborío. Isolated. Abandoned up top. He may have been good for 12 goals in 16 appearances, but come the 79th minute, he was good for a place on the bench, the Costa Rican international leaving before seriously testing Jaime Penedo.

RSL’s playmaker wasn’t anymore effective. Javi Morales gave the ball away four times, a game high. He was dispossessed another four times, also tied for the night’s high mark. His 77 passes were second to know Kyle Beckerman, but they lacked the influence of a normal Javier Morales performance.

Thursday in Utah, RSL will expect more from their two biggest threats. Whether that’s happens because better performances, a switch in formation, or a change in approach, Jason Kreis will likely need more from his danger-men.

  • Real Salt Lake’s not married to their 4-4-2

Or, if they are married to their trademark formation, it’s an open relationship. A handful of times this season, RSL deployed a 4-3-3, using their new-found forward depth to shake things up midseason. Tonight — on the road, leg one, against the powerful defending champions — Kreis utilized another source of depth, putting Yordany Alvarez into deep midfield along side Kyle Beckerman.

The result was a 4-2-3-1 formation, but the choice was a reflection of the RSL boss’s growing confidence in the Cuban destroyer.  Regardless, it’s unclear how effective it was. That LA’s counterattack was a non-factor until Alvarez gave way for Robbie Findley hints the switch helped contain the Galaxy’s biggest threat, but where were the midfielders on the goal? Collapsed into the area, not familiar with new setup’s roles, abandoning one of the more dangerous spots on the field.

You’d assume Kreis will be more aggressive at home. Joao Plata may also be healthy. There’ll be reasons to go back to the 4-3-1-2, but it was interesting to see RSL break out a double pivot. The two-man shield may have helped on Sunday.

  • Omar Gonzalez demands a lot of attention

When was the last time you saw two players marking one target on set pieces? It happened on Sunday. Omar Gonzalez is such a threat, Kreis asked Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert to mark him.

It was amazing; the ultimate side of respect; a concession that whatever everybody else had been trying ignored the obvious solution: Gonzalez is just too good . Swallow your pride and put a second man on him.

That one of the markers with the 6’4″ Schuler speaks to the amount of respect Kreis has for Gonzalez’s threat. Most managers would just shrug and say something like ‘we just have to win that battle,’ not wanting to sacrifice a player who could be deployed elsewhere. Kreis did the smart thing. He did what it took to stop Omar Gonzalez.

  • Galaxy counter attack may not be stoppable, but was containable

Kreis took a big risk sacrificing Alvarez near the hour mark, bringing on Robbie Findley, and pursuing an equalizer. Over the next half hour, LA seemed to have counter attack after counter attack – the type of breakouts we saw the Galaxy ride through the last two postseasons.

But credit, huge credit to not only the defenders but Kreis, who put faith in his back two rather than just accepting the one-goal deficit. Near full-time, Devon Sandoval nearly found an equalizer, Todd Dunivant coming up big to keep the big rookie for heading in a Luis Gil cross. Had that gone in, Kreis’ faith would have been rewarded.

Yes, they gave up some opportunities in transition, but to see the coordination between Borchers and Schuler, you can’t help but think that’d been a point of emphasis in training. Kreis may have bet on his defense holding up.

It’s too much to say RSL had the right approach to LA’s counter, because there were a number of times the Galaxy seemed one split second, go either way soccer moment from breaking through. But the scoreboard tells the story. RSL did contain LA’s counter attack, even if they didn’t exactly stop them.