[MLS PLAYOFFS: Real Salt Lake-Portland] The whirlwind MLS playoff schedule slams to a halt Sunday night, when Real Salt Lake hosts Portland (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) Sunday in the first leg of the Western Conference finals.
It will be the 12th postseason game played in a span of 12 days, starting with the play-in round Oct. 30. RSL and Portland are playing their third playoff matches in eight and nine days, respectively. The downsides of a crunched schedule are fatigue and injuries and looming suspensions; the upside is that both teams ride into their encounter fresh off exhilarating triumphs.
The Timbers knocked off archrival Seattle, 5-3, on aggregate by drilling the Sounders, 3-2, at home in the second leg Thursday night. RSL followed suit with a 2-0 extra-time triumph and 2-1 aggregate dispatch of the defending champion Galaxy at Rio Tinto Stadium, which is also where the first leg against Portland will be played.
Said Timbers coach Caleb Porter after the defeat of Seattle, “Would you like to have a week off? Yeah. These are important games at the end of the year; of course we’d like to have a week off. It’s kind of a strange schedule, but it is what it is. Salt Lake is in the same situation as us.”
RSL head coach Jason Kreis differs on that viewpoint just a bit. Though as the lower-seeded team RSL will not host the conference final's second leg as it did in the semifinals, the format gave RSL two days of rest without travel leading up the game Sunday. Portland scheduled a Saturday charter flight to get its contingent to Utah following a light training session that morning.
“The guys are at home, surrounded by their loved ones,” said Kreis on a conference call with reporters Friday. “Hopefully, they’re going to sleep really well tonight and tomorrow night and do their best to prepare for the game.
“The tactical side of it is, yeah, we like being an aggressive team, as does Portland, so I think if we go out there and put our best foot forward for the first 90 minutes we’ll put ourselves in a very good place. We’re looking forward to that.”
In this series, Portland encounters the stigma of meeting one of two teams it hasn’t been able to beat this season; Vancouver, which tied the Timbers three times, is the other. Aside from a 0-0 tie in their last meeting, Oct. 19, at Jeld-Wen Field, in which RSL set out to clinch its playoff spot by getting a point, RSL has taken apart the vaunted Portland defense.
RSL scored nine goals in three games against Portland in August: a 4-2 Open Cup win and 2-1 league victory, both at Rio Tinto, and a wild 3-3 tie at Jeld-Wen Field that featured two penalty kicks and a red card issued to RSL midfielder Yordany Alvarez.
On Saturday came confirmation that striker Alvaro Saborio, who suffered a muscle pull in overtime against the Galaxy, will not play Sunday against Portland. Yet in 18 games without Saborio, whose 12 goals led the team, RSL went 10-6-2. Kreis can go with the speedy Olmes Garcia, who scored five goals, or the tricky and creative Joao Plata, whose eight assists was second on the team to Javier Morales (10).
One crucial matchup will be that of central mids Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson, who played five seasons for RSL before being traded last winter. They are both remarkable two-way players vital in their abilities to connect the back line to the attack, and Johnson set a career mark of nine goals, including two penalty kicks.
If Johnson and Beckerman can free up playmakers Diego Valeri, who led Portland with 10 goals and 13 assists, and Morales, there could be plenty of chances despite the tiring effects of a quick turnaround. If the busiest men on the field are goalkeepers Donovan Ricketts and Nick Rimando, the national TV audience will witness a great show. If one midfielder can suppress the other team’s playmaker, the edge could be decisive.
Porter cited as an advantage the fact his team dismantled an opponent playing a diamond midfield system against Seattle. Though the Sounders recently adopted that formation and as the results showed, aren’t nearly as effective playing it as RSL, Porter does have Johnson on his side of the ball going against his former team.
In a truly professional response, Johnson avoided reference to his past and focused on the future. “It’s just another great opportunity to get to a championship game,” Johnson said of dueling with many former teammates. “The four games we’ve played against them this year that kind of all goes out the window. This is the first time that we’ll play Salt Lake in a playoffs series, so it’s a fresh sheet for us.”
Despite the lack of success this season against RSL and the glaring gap in experience between Porter and Kreis, there’s complete confidence amongst the Timbers. In his first job at a professional team since leaving the University of Akron, Porter has mentored Portland to the Western Conference regular-season title and in his first postseason series decisively thrashed its bitterest rival.
One of the true believers is goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who helped the Galaxy reach two MLS Cups (2009, 2011) before being traded to Montreal. After half a season season, he moved again, to Portland in exchange for keeper Troy Perkins. Aided by Ricketts’ blend of steady and spectacular performances, the Timbers led the league in shutouts (15) and were second-best in goals allowed (33).
“He was a head coach at Akron, and I know it’s not the same level, but I think he was well-prepared when he came in and he’s done a fantastic job,” says Ricketts, who at 34 recaptured his excellent form (2010 Goalkeeper of the Year) with Los Angeles. “I had no doubts in the back of my mind that he was going to be a good coach in MLS because he traded for me before he was announced as coach, so I have a lot of respect for him.”