Real Salt Lake vs. Portland Timbers: Preview and TV schedule

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Only one of Salt Lake and Portland are heading to MLS Cup. Who will it be?

The Western Conference playoffs have gone exactly as planned so far. The No. 4 seeded Seattle Sounders defeated the No. 5 seeded Colorado Rapids in the play-in game, then in the conference semifinals, the top two seeds advanced to set up a battle of the West's best in the conference final.

It's the No. 1 Portland Timbers against the No. 2 Real Salt Lake and a spot in MLS is on the line.

The Timbers got here by crushing their rivals Seattle, going up 5-1 on aggregate at one point. The Sounders scored two goals late in the second leg to make the tie look closer than it was because the Timbers absolutely demolished them and at no point did it look like Portland might actually go out.

RSL didn't have things as easy in the conference semifinals, but they also were playing the two-time defending MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy, not the free falling Sounders. LA took a 1-0 lead into the second leg, but RSL stormed back at home, scoring a goal to bring it level and threatening all match before finally dethroning the Galaxy in extra time.

If RSL wants a chance at their second MLS Cup in club history, though, they will have to change a trend. Portland is still the higher seed and so far in the West, the higher seed has reigned supreme.

Five questions

1. How much does the regular season mean? RSL dominated the Timbers in the regular season (and U.S. Open Cup), winning twice at home and drawing twice in Portland, but one of those wins came against an injury-depleted Timbers side. Most important, Portland are playing their best soccer of the season and in recent weeks have shown the ability to play more defensive, press less and not need to control possession. Is this the same Timbers team that RSL ran roughshod over in the regular season or will Salt Lake be up against a whole new Portland side?

2. Who replaces Alvaro Saborio? Salt Lake will be without their best striker, and maybe best player, for the first leg. A hip injury will keep Saborio sidelines on Sunday and it is not clear who Jason Kreis will tap to replace him. Olmes Garcia and Robbie Findley would make a fine pairing up top, while Devon Sandoval is the most like-for-like option, but Joao Plata would give the team some much-needed dynamism if he is fit, which is very much in question. And this assumes that Kreis sticks with a two-man frontline, which seems likely because Saborio is RSL's only striker suited to play alone up top, but it is hardly guaranteed. He did play a 4-2-3-1 in the first leg of the conference semifinal and has used a 4-3-3, after all.

3. How will Portland attack the diamond? The Timbers had a lot of success against the Sounders' diamond midfield, using the wings to attack where they would either have time or pull the midfielders out to create space in the middle. It was a textbook attack at a diamond, but the Sounders had only played in a diamond for about six weeks. Real Salt Lake has been playing a diamond midfield for years and to great effect. Using the flanks to exploit the diamond will be much tougher against RSL.

4. How good will Kyle Beckerman be? Beckerman is one of MLS's best players and, almost certainly, its best holding midfielder, but the Timbers will provide a unique challenge for him. Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe's constant movement and ability to create, for themselves and others, will put an extreme level of pressure on Beckerman. He will almost certainly be outnumbered, meaning he will need help from his centerbacks, and his excellent game-reading skills will be challenged. Beckerman did well enough during the regular season, as evidenced by RSL's success against the Timbers, but Portland are playing their best soccer of the season and Beckerman will face his toughest test yet.

5. Can Portland defend? RSL had no problem scoring goals on the Timbers this season, notching nine goals in four matches. Portland couldn't close down space on Javier Morales and too often failed to track Salt Lake's diagonal runs, dooming them time and time again. Saborio's absence will make things easier on the Timbers defense, but that doesn't eliminate their challenges at the back against an RSL attack that has had their number.

Match date/time: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET

Venue: Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, UT

TV: ESPN

Streaming: Watch ESPN

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