MLS Cup Playoffs: Timbers have a big hurdle to clear in Real Salt Lake

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The Timbers have made lots of positive strides, but they have yet to figure out how to stop RSL's attack

Caleb Porter has accomplished a remarkable amount in one season as the head coach of the Portland Timbers, taking a team that had never made the playoffs to home-field advantage in the Western Conference finals.

But there's one team that Porter has yet to figure out, and it just so happens to be the same one the Timbers face in the first leg on Sunday: Real Salt Lake.

Statistically, the Timbers are the second best defensive team in the league, having allowed just 36 goals in 36 games, including the playoffs. The've given up more than two goals in a game just three times all year and only twice since allowing three to the New York Red Bulls in the season-opener.

Against Real Salt Lake, though, the Timbers have looked like a very different team, allowing seven goals in three MLS games and two more in their U.S. Open Cup semifinals loss. To put it another way, the Timbers have allowed an average of 2.25 goals per game in four meetings with RSL, while allowing .89 per game in their 36 games against every other team.

Even during the Timbers' relative struggles this year, they've alway looked organized and confident. Well, against everyone other than RSL.

In the first meeting between the two teams -- which criminally didn't come until Aug. 7 in the Open Cup -- RSL scored a well-contested 2-1 victory in which the Timbers' only goal came in the 90th minute.

About two weeks later, they met again, but this time at JELD-WEN Field. The Timbers managed to take the lead on two separate occasions -- the second of which came after they were a man up in the 86th minute -- but could not hold on either time and were forced to settle for a 3-3 tie.

A third meeting in less than a month followed, and this time RSL ran all over the Timbers. Porter, in a bit of a shock, opted to go with a 3-5-2 formation that backfired horribly. RSL jumped out to leads of 2-0 and 4-1. They also racked up 60 percent of the possession and outpassed the Timbers 515-321.

The closest the Timbers came to figuring out how to stop RSL came in the teams' most recent meeting on Oct. 19, again in Portland. The Timbers were at least able to battle RSL to a scoreless stalemate.

In any case, this is an issue the Timbers are going to have to tackle. While they were able to mostly manage the games against the Seattle Sounders in the conference semifinals, they have been unable to do the same thing against RSL. In past games, the Timbers have been unable to find an answer the for the likes of Alvaro Saborio or Javier Morales, each have a pair of goals and an assist in three games. In a year where the Timbers have made so many big steps, they've got at least one more massive hurdle.

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