Real Salt Lake had the Portland Timbers' number all regular season and nothing changed in the playoffs. Despite giving up the opening goal, RSL crushed the Timbers, 4-2, in the first leg of the Western Conference final and only a stoppage time tally by Frederic Piquionne kept Portland in the tie. Still, RSL has themselves a two-goal advantage over a team they have dominated and if they can make it through 90 more minutes, will be MLS Cup-bound for the second time in five years.
Five questions answered
Before each game in the MLS Cup Playoffs, we ask five questions. Here's how the game answered them.
1. How much does the regular season mean?
Apparently, the regular season was a reasonable predictor of what we would see from these two teams in Salt Lake City. RSL have been the only team that Portland's failed to figure out this season, and they struggled again on Sunday night. Even with Alvaro Saborio out, RSL scored four goals. The Timbers allow less than one goal per game.
2. Who replaces Alvaro Saborio?
That would be rookie Devon Sandoval, who has been compared unfavorably to Steven Lenhart because of his physical play and his hair. Sandoval is just as tough as Lenhart without being nearly as dirty, and he's actually quite a bit better at holding up the ball and distributing to his teammates than the San Jose forward. He showed off those skills on Sunday in an excellent performance.
3. How will Portland attack the diamond?
Poorly. Diego Valeri only had 25 touches before he was taken out of the game in the 53rd minute. Rodney Wallace didn't get much time on the ball either. Darlington Nagbe didn't attempt a shot. Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler and Kyle Beckerman were fairly dominant in Portland's attacking third.
4. How good will Kyle Beckerman be?
Excellent. His 70 percent passing accuracy doesn't tell the whole story. He's often asked to be a metronome in midfield, circulating possession and helping his team keep the ball, but he was a lot more direct in his passing on Sunday. That resulted in a lower pass completion percentage, but a lot more dangerous opportunities on balls over the top towards Sandoval and Robbie Findley. And, as mentioned above, he kept Valeri from getting touches.
5. Can Portland defend?
Nope! They were bad in every way. They conceded a set piece goal on a driven ball to the near post, a set piece goal on a lofted ball towards the center of the box, a direct ball over the top to Findley and an exchange between Findley and Sandoval. It's a bad look when you concede four very different kinds of goals, mostly because there's no obvious fix.
What we didn't expect
Sandoval to be so good: Sandoval had a very good regular season and it wouldn't have been surprising to see him turn in a capable performance, but he was every bit as good as Saborio usually is. His goal was impressive, but his hold-up play and distribution was the real jaw-dropper. It's not just that it was good, it was "best we've seen in MLS this year" good.
The big takeaway
Portland has no idea how to play RSL: In five matches against RSL this season, the Timbers are 0-3-2 and they don't just lose to Salt Lake, they get hammered. They have allowed 13 goals to Salt Lake, a number made even more amazing by the fact that Portland averaged less than a goal again per match this season. RSL doesn't do any one thing to befuddle the Timbers either. They strike in set pieces, with possession, on the counterattack. The only constant is that Portland consistently loses the battle up the middle, where they have no answer for RSL's outstanding spine.
Man of the Match
Javier Morales: Once again, Morales ran the show for RSL. With Beckerman doing the dirty work behind him and Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez getting into good enough spots to occupy Timbers players, Morales found himself in space time and time. With time to operate, Morales is nearly unstoppable and he showed it with some sublime passing that had Portland on their heels all match. He also added a goal on a tremendous suicide header to put his stamp on an outstanding first-leg win for RSL.
Portland was MLS's best home team in the regular season and they're going to need that home-field advantage if they want to have any chance of turning around their two-goal deficit. That means somehow finding a way to slow down the RSL attack. Portland scored three or more goals at home seven times this season, but even three might not be enough the way RSL plays against them. It may take four or five goals considering how easily Salt Lake has piled up goals and with RSL having already managed two draws in two trips to Portland this season, Jason Kreis' side have to feel like MLS Cup is in their future.