[MLS PLAYOFFS: Portland-Real Salt Lake]The MLS Western Conference title came down to two teams that went through very different turnarounds in 2013, and in the end, experience prevailed. Leading, 4-2, from the first leg, and not fazed by a typically frenzied Portland crowd at Jeld-Wen Field, Real Salt Lake fended off the Timbers and notched an insurance goal by Robbie Findleyto win the match, 1-0, and the series two games to none.
RSL advances, 5-2, on aggregate to its second MLS Cup title game Dec. 7 at Sporting Kansas City. It beat the Galaxy on penalty kicks to win the 2009 crown. Portland ends 2013 with the Western Conference regular-season championship and its first MLS playoff appearance, yet as the loser in four of six meetings against RSL this year in all competitions.
Findley, who returned to RSL last January as part of a major makeover, pounced on the rebound of a savedLuis Gil shot in the 29th minute to increase the aggregate lead to 5-2. Defenders Pa Modou Kahand Michael Harrington were close enough the clear the rebound but Findley got to it first and stuck it away. Portland thus needed three goals to stay alive in the series, and seldom looked threatening enough to manage that feat.
“I’ve said it all year long," said RSL coach Jason Kreis, "that we brought Robbie Findley back because he’s capable of scoring a goal in the biggest moments. 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 down. Robbie’s waited for the exact right time to find his best form, for sure.”
Eastern Conference: Sporting KC-Houston
Portland defenderMamadou ‘Futty’ Danso scored on a rebound as well just a few minutes later, but he was clearly a yard offside when Diego Valeritook his shot and the goal didn’t stand. He’d also been denied a goal in the 15th minute, when a pushing foul by Rodney Wallaceon Lovel Palmer preceded Danso’s redirection into the net.
Though the Timbers took 18 shots, only Valeri’s and one other attempt required a save from RSL keeper Nick Rimando, who was ably fronted by as many as seven or eight players when Portland pushed forward. Valeri, bothered by an adductor injury since August, took six shots but only that one saved attempt hit the frame.
Portland also lost two players, Wallace and starting forward Frederic Piquionne, to injuries during the first half. Kalif Alhassan replaced Wallace and Maximilliano Urruti took over for Piquionne. Neither replacement was able to significantly influence the game. The Timbers lacked the composure to find the target with their shots and though driven on by their fans were not as crisp as their opponents.
An efficient RSL midfield controlled play for long periods and when defending forced Portland to launch balls into the penalty area, where centerbacks Chris Schuler and Nat Borchers kept the airspace clear with powerful clearances. Except for Darlington Nagbe, who breezed past challenges into the goalmouth occasionally, Portland’s attackers shot poorly or hit hurried passes.
Midway through the second half, Nagbe veered inside from the left flank and cut back a ball that Will Johnson, scorer of nine goals during the regular season, sliced well wide. Rimando easily covered Urruti’s one shot on goal in the final minutes.
The game showcased those players chosen by head coachJason Kreis and his staff to replace forward Fabian Espindola and defenderJamison Olave, both traded to New York, and Will Johnson. Findley took the forward spot alongside Alvaro Saborio, whose own absences opened the door for Devon Sandoval, who played all 180 minutes of the conference finals. Schuler took over for Olave.Gil got most of the starts in relief of Johnson but three other players also contributed.
Defeat didn’t prevent the Timbers Army from setting off flares, serenading their players, and chanting “P-T-F-C” long after the final whistle. Their team improved 23 points from 2012, won the conference, and knocked out bitter rival Seattle in its first MLS playoff series. This time, the fairy tale fell just short.
Portland’s elimination means that neither regular-season conference champion will play in MLS Cup. Instead, runner-ups Sporting Kansas City and RSL shall contest the title game.
Nov. 24 in Portland, Ore.
Portland 0 Real Salt Lake 1.Goal: Findley 29.
Real Salt Lake --Rimando; Beltran, Schuler, Borchers, Palmer (Mansally 60); Beckerman, Gil, Grabavoy (Velasquez 90), Morales; Findley, Sandoval (Garcia 86).
Portland --Ricketts, Jewsbury (R.Johnson 72), Danso, Kah, Harrington, Chara, Valeri, W. Johnson, Nagbe, Wallace (Alhassan 45), Piquionne (Urruti 26).
Yellow Cards:Portland -- Kah 85; Real Salt Lake -- Palmer 7, Schuler 55, Sandoval 84,
Referee: Armando Villarreal.