The Portland Timbers were the Western Conference's best team in the regular season and they were also MLS's best home team. Now, they need both of those things to come good because they are heading back home in the second leg of the Western Conference final down 4-2 to a Real Salt Lake team getting healthier and playing some of their best soccer of the season.
The problem for the Timbers is even if they lean upon their regular season history, both at the top of the table and at JELD-WEN Field, they also have to recognize the way RSL had their number all year. Salt Lake twice Portland at home to go along with a pair of draws in the Rose City, a record that held up two weeks ago when they thrashed the Timbers in the first 90 minutes of their conference final tie.
So what do the Timbers do now? They hope and they pray. The numbers don't look good for them, nor does common sense, but maybe the soccer gods will shine upon them for one night.
RSL, if history is any indication, doesn't need the help of the soccer gods. They don't need any help at all, just the passage of 90 minutes.
1. Will the Timbers quiet Javier Morales? The Timbers caged Clint Dempsey in their conference semifinal tie, erasing the tip of the Sounders' diamond, they didn't even come close to putting the clamps on Javier Morales in the first leg. Morales was everywhere, dropping deep to link up the RSL back line and forward, floating wide to make mince meat of the Timbers' left and pushing high to get looks at goal. Toss in his dead ball delivery, and he almost single-handedly unlocked the Portland defense. RSL are far more adept than at getting their talisman in dangerous places than the Sounders, the result of playing with a diamond midfield for years instead of months, but Portland is going to have to find a way to lock down Morales anyways.
2. Can Portland make use of their midfield? Despite playing with one fewer midfielder, RSL has done an excellent job taking away the Timbers midfield. They have take away the passing lanes that Portland is dependent on and forced them to play more directly than they want, a way that makes it almost impossible to succeed against Salt Lake's imposing central defense of Borchers and Schuler. If the Timbers, specifically Diego Chara and Will Johnson, can't figure out how to transition through their midfield and get the ball to Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe with space to create, they're as good as done.
3. How good is Nick Rimando? If Nick Rimando wasn't the best goalkeeper in MLS this season, he was second best and he's always been in top form for the playoffs. While RSL's defense is undoubtedly excellent, they have always benefited from a goalkeeper that would bail them out when necessary and as good as Salt Lake has been against Portland, the Timbers' urgency and JELD-WEN Field is sure to result in a handful of chances for the home side. That means Rimando will be called upon, and odds are he will deliver. RSL will be betting on it.
4. Will the Timbers central defense hold up? While Donovan Ricketts has done well to come to the Timbers' rescue this season and Johnson and Chara minimize the number of times the central defense is called upon, the fact remains that Futty Danso and Pa Modou Ka are average MLS defenders at best. RSL are too good of a team to hide a central defense against, which means that, at least for one night, Danso and Ka will have to be great.
5. What does Caleb Porter have up his sleeve? Stylistically, RSL and the Timbers are similar and that tips the scales in favor of the team that has played that way for longer, Salt Lake. They are more efficient in what they do and play more fluidly, allowing them to counter what other teams from them. Caleb Porter has done an incredible job transforming the Timbers in one year, even bringing a more conservative approach to the high pressure style he prefers, but they are going to lose the experience game. That means Porter has to bring something new to the table in the second leg. It might have to be pixie dust.
Match date/time: Sunday, November 24, 9 p.m. ET
Venue: JELD-WEN Field, Portland, OR
Streaming: Watch ESPN