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.

Report: Toronto to send Giovinco to Tigres for Valencia, cash

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An Mexican site reports that Tigres UANL is ready to send Enner Valencia and cash to Toronto FC to land Sebastian Giovinco.

Normally that’s seem a bit wild for TFC to send their perennial MLS MVP candidate packing, but the club has been hesitant to meet Giovinco’s terms on a new contract.

[ MORE: PL Manager Power Rankings ]

And Valencia is nearly three years younger and a bit bigger than Giovinco.

Valencia scored in bunches for Tigres after arriving from West Ham, scoring nine goals with an assist in 16 Apertura matches including three multi-goal games. He then saw his numbers dip to two goals and three assists in 11 Clausura appearances.

Giovinco, meanwhile, has six goals and six assists in 15 matches between MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League.

It would be a significant risk for TFC, though the idea of pairing up Enner Valencia and Jozy Altidore is a physical nightmare for MLS defenses.

Whoops! Unai Emery puts up Arsenal message on web site

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Arsenal’s next manager is very close to being officially Unai Emery.

That is unless, the Gunners’ brass has its mind changed by his sloppy web savvy.

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

Emery — or his people, or hackers — mistakenly put up a graphic featuring the Spanish coach, the Arsenal logo, and the phrase “Proud to be a part of the Arsenal family” before taking it down in short order.

Emery is expected to take over for Arsene Wenger at the Emirates Stadium this summer. Something tells us we’ll have an announcement on Wednesday or even later tonight…

State TV: Ghana president orders arrest of FIFA executive

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ACCRA, Ghana (AP) Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo on Monday ordered police to arrest football federation head Kwesi Nyantakyi, a member of the powerful FIFA Council, over allegations of fraud.

Akufo-Addo’s order was announced by the state-run Ghana Broadcasting Corporation.

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

Abu Jinapor, deputy chief of staff at the president’s office, said the order for Nyantakyi to be arrested and investigated related to an undercover documentary that purports to show the football official asking businessmen for money in return for access to the president and other senior government officials.

“It was a clear case of defrauding by false pretense,” Jinapor said, adding that Akufo-Addo’s order came after he watched excerpts from the documentary, which has not yet been broadcast.

Nyantakyi is president of the Ghana Football Association, a vice president of the Confederation of African Football, and has been a member of the ruling FIFA Council since 2016. He was the FIFA official chosen to oversee the football competition at the 2012 London Olympics.

Ghanaian media reported that Nyantakyi was not in Ghana at the time of the president’s order but was returning home.

Nyantakyi has been accused of improper behavior before when a British media investigation just before the 2014 World Cup claimed he had been willing to allow the Ghana national team to play in games that could be fixed by others. He denied the allegation.

Premier League managerial power rankings

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There’s a new sheriff at West Ham United, and it’s no small-time boss.

Former Premier League champion manager Manuel Pellegrini is taking over the London side, which had us wondering how high he’d move up the acclaim ladder upon hiring (as of post time).

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

With the 20th spot still open — will it be Fulham or Aston Villa — the Arsenal and Everton jobs vacant for now, and both Neil Warnock and Nuno Espirito Santo yet to manage their clubs in the top flight, we rank the power status of the 15 other active Premier League bosses.

15. Javi Gracia, Watford — Manager don’t usually last long at Vicarage Road, and Gracia doesn’t have a record for sticking around clubs for too long himself.

14. Mark Hughes, Southampton — Saints stayed in the Premier League, and Hughes deserves credit for pushing the buttons on a talented squad.

13. Claude Puel, Leicester City — A disappointing finish to his season keeps Leicester outside the Europa League, and so he has a bit more to prove after an impressive reclamation job at the King Power Stadium.

12. David Wagner, Huddersfield Town — Keeping Town in the Premier League was impressive, but we’re not sure how much we learned about the long-term prognosis of Jurgen Klopp‘s best pal.

11. Chris Hughton, Brighton and Hove Albion — He’d led several clubs to Premier League promotion, and coaxed fine seasons out of what appeared to be a subpar defense at season’s open.

10. Eddie Howe, Bournemouth — One of the brightest young managerial minds, can he take the next step on the South Coast?

9. Roy Hodgson, Crystal Palace — What he did upon inheriting and then overseeing one of the worst starts in Premier League history was nothing short of brilliant. Clearly he hasn’t stopped learning unlike many other PL “retreads.”

8. Manuel Pellegrini, West Ham — What will a few years outside the Premier League, if anything, have done to the one-time Man City leader. Don’t forget: The season City won the PL season, he coaxed 20-plus goal campaigns in all competitions from Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo, and Yaya Toure.

7. Antonio Conte, Chelsea — Tactically and experience-wise, he’s so much higher on the list. Regardless of the mess at Chelsea, better was needed this season.

6. Sean Dyche, Burnley — Guiding tiny Burnley to the Europa League is as impressive a feat as any outside of what Guardiola did this year and Claudio Ranieri did at Leicester City.

— BONUS — 6b. Unai Emery, if hired at Arsenal —

5. Rafa Benitez, Newcastle United — Considering his resume, it shouldn’t be as surprising that he kept United up despite his owner refusing to green-light a real answer at center forward. Worked career years out of Mo Diame and Jonjo Shelvey.

4. Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool — The Champions League final says something, especially in a year he sold Philippe Coutinho, but his team still lacks the consistency of the three men in front of him.

3. Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham Hotspur — Spurs have smartly spent and kept their stars around, but their financial outlay arguably should not have them consistently finishing ahead of Liverpool and Arsenal.

2. Jose Mourinho, Manchester United — Still a defensive marvel, still a genius, still somewhat hilarious… but we all know who No. 1 is…

  1. Pep Guardiola, Manchester City