Through to the Western Conference Final, the Portland Timbers take on Real Salt Lake in the first of two legs on Sunday evening in Rio Tinto Stadium (6pm PT, ESPN; 750 The Game / La Pantera 940).
This game will be the fifth meeting between the teams in all competitions this year, but with a place in the MLS Cup Final at stake, the two sides will be determined to become the best in the west.
Find out everything you need to know about the opposition ahead of what is the biggest game of a thoroughly action-packed season for Caleb Porter’s men.
How did they reach this stage?
Overcoming LA Galaxy 2-0 in the second leg of their Western Conference semifinal saw RSL secure a 2-1 aggregate victory. Jason Kreis’ team had it all to do in that return leg after losing narrowly to the MLS champions following Sean Franklin’s wonder strike in the first battle, but a goal from Sebastian Velasquez forced the tie into extra-time. From there, they went on to win it thanks to Chris Schuler when he fired in on 102 minutes.
RSL made it through to the postseason by finishing second in the Western Conference – just one point behind the Timbers – as they celebrated 16 wins from 34 regular season games, which worked out at 1.65 points per game. Having led that conference for long spells of the year, it was clear that the 2009 MLS Cup winners would be one of the teams to beat in what turned out to be a highly competitive campaign.
Who have been their standout performers?
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando has been truly outstanding this year and proved his class again in that semifinal second leg by denying Landon Donovan in a one-on-one situation. Great teams are made up of inspirational leaders and Rimando is definitely one of those, along with captain Kyle Beckerman, who some have argued should be in the running to be this season’s MVP for the league such has been his impact.
Playmaker Javier Morales has long been a key player for the team and his 10 assists this year indicate that he is as dangerous as he has ever been. Roaming at the top of a midfield diamond, the Argentine wreaks havoc with his movement and precise passing. In front of him, Alvaro Saborio has been excellent though Kreis ruled him out following a pulled muscle suffered in their semifinal win over LA. In his place could be any one of the following attacking players in Olmes Garcia, rookie Devon Sandoval and speedster Joao Plata.
What can the Timbers expect?
Judging by their previous contests this season, the Timbers will expect a physical battle that is played at a high tempo. RSL likes to dominate possession, so it’s all about applying pressure at the right times and limiting the space they can move into in order to shut down their game plan. That is not an easy task to complete as Porter knows all too well and that is why this will be a very demanding encounter for his players.
Tactically, RSL are one of the best teams in the league. Every player, no matter what position on the roster, knows his job when introduced and that ensures the entire team move as a cohesive unit. From Rimando all the way through to their forwards, they move the ball quickly, link play incredibly well, and will punish any mistakes made by the Timbers as they can be lethal in front of goal.
What is their record in the playoffs?
Having entered MLS in 2005, RSL has made the playoffs in five of its eight seasons in the league. In 2009, they went all the way, overcoming Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire and LA Galaxy to lift the MLS Cup for the first time in their history.
Gareth Maher is a contributing writer to PortlandTimbers.com. He is a frequent writer about soccer for the Irish Daily Mail in Dublin as well as ESPNFC.com.