Tonight features the second leg of Western Conference Championship between Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake. For viewers in the United States, the live broadcast begins at 9pm ET on ESPN and ESPN Deportes.
What It Means For Portland, 2-1-0 – #1 Seed in the Western Conference
The Portland Timbers’ 2013 has been one of the most remarkable seasons in MLS history, as the Timbers climbed from the Western Conference cellar to the top of the league with panache, heart, and guts. As the landmarks keep rolling in, it’s the kind of season Timbers fans never want to see end. A year when everything goes right, and anything seems possible.
Now, the Timbers are staring at the end. After imploding in Salt Lake, the season would be done and dusted if not for two moments of individual brilliance that bookended an absolute nightmare: If not for Will Johnson’s free kick, and Frederic Piquionne’s bullet header, this season is over. Perhaps it should be. And yet, the Timbers are still alive, a fact that shouldn’t be surprising in this magical season.
Down only two goals at home, the task is possible. Portland has used the two-week break to regroup, drum up belief, both internally and externally, focus on the task at hand. Portland is unbeaten at home since March, and they’ve only lost in Portland once all year. Although Salt Lake has become a bit of a bogey team, the Timbers think they can do it. They’ll need to score first – one goal would send Jeld-Wen into mayhem and put the tie on a knife-edge.
What It Means For Real Salt Lake, 2-1-0 – #2 Seed in the Western Conference
Between Thursday and Sunday night two weeks ago, RSL was in dreamland. After slaying the two-time defending champion LA Galaxy in extra time, they dismantled the Portland Timbers with free-flowing attacks and back-breaking counter-attacks. Even though they gave up a stoppage time goal, Jason Kreis’ men were ecstatic with the result, which makes them huge favorites to get back to the MLS Cup Final.
However, in a season where every team has a reason to be made at MLS’s abomination of a playoff schedule (Portland had to travel to Salt Lake and play only 48 hours after beating Seattle in the first round), Salt Lake can thank the two week break between games for sapping up their momentum in the tie, and throwing it away.
RSL should have the tie in the bag, but with their recent playoff failures and shock US Open Cup Final loss to league-worst DC United, there are demons-a-plenty at the Rio Tinto. Even though his seven-year reign in Salt Lake has been hugely successful, Jason Kreis has won only one trophy, and with his name heavily linked to the marquee NYCFC job, this could be the end of an era for Salt Lake. The pressure is, obviously, on.
RSL play a very similar game to Portland, and they do it with a tad more refinement. Salt Lake were able to overrun the Timbers’ two-man midfield in the first leg, and use pace and pressure to run at an savvy – but slow – Timbers backline. If Salt Lake can keep possession and hold the midfield through their anchor Kyle Beckerman, they’ll take Portland and their crowd out of the game early.
Portland need to come out of the gates breathing fire. It’s imperative that the start quickly and don’t let up. Of course, the defense will have to be better, but three of RSL’s two leg goals came on set pieces, and another came on an individual mistake from Futty Danso. The Timbers experienced defense will be motivated to do much better.
Attacking wise, Portland need to load up the midfield, and get the ball wide. That may mean dropping Darlington Nagbe back into the middle, or keeping Diego Valeri more central. Portland don’t do well on the back-foot, but on the front-foot, they’re dynamite, and that’s how they put up three goals on Salt Lake in August.
Caleb Porter has three options up top, Ryan Johnson, Maxi Urruti, or Freddy Piquionne. Johnson has been the playoff starter, Urruti was the starter before he got hurt, but it’s Piquionne who is the best player, and best areal threat. He should get the nod Sunday night.
RSL will be without Chris Wingert, who has a broken rib, and also Alvaro Saborio, their star forward. It will be fascinating to see the tactical battle between Kreis and Porter, MLS’ two brightest young minds, and the two hottest American coaches in the business. Porter is revered in Portland, while Kreis has to find the sweet spot between attack and defense with a two-goal advantage.
Set Pieces – They’ve become a weapon for both teams. RSL are monstrous from corners, with center-back Chris Scheuler scoring three headers in two games. Portland are poor defending all kinds of set pieces – not only in the last game – Seattle scored two goals off throw-ins in the previous playoff series. On the other end of the field, Will Johnson is playing like a man possessed, and his free-kicks are a huge threat. Johnson had a blast saved by Nick Rimando when these two teams met on the penultimate day of the season in stoppage time, and playing against his former team, Will could be even more bombastic than usual.
Don’t discount the role the atmosphere at Jeld-Wen will play. Teams implode in Portland. It happens to the best. It happened to Seattle (twice), New York, LA, and San Jose this year. The support will be raucous. As long as Portland are in it, the Timbers Army will be playing the game as well.
It’s an interesting one that could go in multiple different directions. But if Portland score first, and I believe they will, it’s a tossup. With RSL’s well-documented playoff woes, the Timbers’ magic may just keep send them through. I’ll say 4-1 Portland in extra time.