[MLS PLAYOFFS: Real Salt Lake-Portland] After a dour Eastern Conference match produced many fouls, few thrills and no goals, the Western counterpart went wild.
Real Salt Lake midfield maestro Javier Moralesburned visiting Portland for a goal and two assists in a 4-2 victory as RSL took advantage of its home leg at Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL defender Chris Schuler scored in his second straight game, and forwards Robbie Findley and Devon Sandoval -- paired together by head coach Jason Kreis with Alvaro Saborio sidelined by injury -- also tallied as RSL dominated play despite an opening goal on a Will Johnson free kick that should not have beaten keeper Nick Rimando.
Yet with a three-goal lead RSL let down its guard sufficiently that Portland sub Frederic Piquionne struck in stoppage time to trim the deficit to a more manageable margin. The second leg will be played at Jeld-Wen Field Nov. 24 in deference to the FIFA international break set aside for another set of playoff games, those for the 11 remaining spots at the 2014 World Cup.
A decent start by Portland provided possession in the RSL half of the field, and in the 14th minute referee Armando Villarrealawarded a free kick for a foul on Timbers playmaker Diego Valeri rather than play advantage. From about 30 yards out, Johnson struck his shot over the wall and Rimando, possibly screened, started to his left and couldn’t recover in time as the ball swerved past his right hand.
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But the Timbers, probably the more tired team because it had to travel after its game Thursday while RSL stayed at home, couldn’t secure control of midfield. Kyle Beckerman buttressed the middle as Morales floated from side to side, findingLuis Giland Sebastian Velasquezwith passes and sending balls into the seams for Findley and Sandoval.
“We lost our composure, for sure,” Johnson toldthe Associated Press. “I don’t know if it’s tired legs or mentally being tired, but we made some mistakes that cost us some goals.
Chasing RSL passes drained Will Johnson and Diego Chara, who seldom found the time and space to spring Valeri, Ryan Johnson and Rodney Wallace, all of whom were eventually substituted.
Schuler and Findley victimized Timbers defender Mamadou "Futty" Danso on the first two goals. One of Portland’s weak spots, defending set plays, cost it an equalizer in the 35th minute when Schuler jumped high as Danso watched to head home a Morales corner kick. Six minutes later, Beckerman played a long ball out of the back and Findley pounced to bang a shot past Donovan Ricketts when Danso stubbed a bad touch.
RSL had taken the initiative even though it lost right back Chris Wingert to a rib injury in the 33rd minute. Portland couldn’t regroup at halftime; instead, less than three minutes after play resumed, RSL swept forward to score a third when Morales released Findley down the right flank and he hit a low, centering ball that Sandoval, the only rookie starter in this game, redirected into the net from close range.
Valeri has been hobbled by an adductor injury since August, and he rarely influenced the match after drawing the free kick on which Portland scored. Kalif Alhassanreplaced Valeri in the 53rd minute; shortly thereafter Jose Valencia replaced forward Ryan Johnson, but neither substitution could spark the Timbers’ attack nor blunt RSL’s pressure.
After a great save by Ricketts repelled a glancing header from Luis Gil, RSL scored its fourth goal from the ensuing corner kick in the 82nd minute. Morales escaped his marker at the near post to head Joao Plata’s corner kick on goal, and the ball took a deflection off Piquionne on its way past Ricketts. It was the 17th set-play goal conceded by Portland this season.
“I didn’t think we defended very well tonight,” said Portland head coach Caleb Porter. “The last 10 games the one thing we’ve done really well is we’ve played well defensively. It’s not just the backs, it’s the entire team and I thought our pressure again, after the first goal, wasn’t really what we’re capable of.”
Wild celebrations signaled a feeling amongst the Rio Tinto faithful that perhaps the series as well as a win had been clinched, and the removal of Morales a few minutes later triggered a thunderous ovation. The Timbers, however, still had enough life to get forward a few times and raise their hopes for the rematch with only seconds to play.
From the right side of midfield Jack Jewsbury hit a diagonal ball high into the goalmouth that Piquionne headed strongly to Rimando’s left and inside the post. Though Portland has yet to beat RSL this year in five matches, it did post an 11-1-5 mark at home and outscored opponents, 29-11.
This will be a very long two-week wait.
Nov. 10 in Sandy, Utah
Real Salt Lake 4 Portland 2.Goals: Schuler (Morales) 35, Findley 41, Sandoval (Findley, Morales) 48, Morales (Plata) 82; W.Johnson 14, Piquionne (Jewsbury) 90+4.
Real Salt Lake --Rimando; Beltran, Schuler, Borchers, Wingert (Palmer 33); Beckerman, Gil, Velasquez, Morales (Grabavoy 86); Findley (Plata 66), Sandoval.
Portland --Ricketts, Jewsbury, Danso, Kah, Harrington, Chara, Valeri (Alhassan 53), W. Johnson, Nagbe, R.Johnson (Valencia 59), Wallace (Piquionne 75).
Yellow Card: Portland -- Valencia 90.