PORTLAND, Ore. – In many ways, it’s a series that’s been building throughout the year.
The Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake, two of the most consistent teams atop the Western Conference standings nearly all season, will face off in the Western Conference Championship starting Sunday at RSL’s Rio Tinto Stadium (6 pm PT, ESPN, 750 The Game / La Pantera 940). It will also be a clash of two teams very similar in style and substance: both feature bright young head coaches who employ a high-pressure attacking style.
But that hasn't necessarily worked in the Timbers' favor this season. Despite a run to the regular-season conference championship, edging RSL by one point in the table, Portland haven’t quite found that same form against the Claret-and-Cobalt, losing twice and drawing twice across all competitions. Outside of their three games against Vancouver, all draws, RSL are the only in-conference team the Timbers haven’t beaten this year.
“I don’t think I could put my finger on anything that makes us stand in their way,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis said during a conference call with media members Friday.
Kreis, who became the youngest head coach to win MLS Cup when he guided RSL to the title in 2009, did say their games have been “particularly interesting” as both teams attempt to impose their will on each other. Porter, who took over at Portland this year in his first professional job after building the University of Akron into a powerhouse, echoed those sentiments, saying there’s a lot of “respect” between the two sides.
“We’ve had some battles,” Porter said during the same conference call. “… We haven’t beaten Salt Lake, but I think we’ve performed well in a lot of the games.”
And all the meetings have been relatively recent.
RSL first defeated Portland 2-1 in the semifinals of the US Open Cup on Aug. 7 at Rio Tinto. The Timbers then played RSL to a 3-3 draw at JELD-WEN Field two weeks later before suffering their toughest defeat of the season, 4-2 on Aug. 30, back at Rio Tinto.
The regular season series concluded with a scoreless draw at JELD-WEN on Oct. 19 that put Portland in the driver's seat for the conference title.
Between his team's attack in the 3-3 result and the defensive play in the 0-0, Porter is taking different positives from both games.
“If we could put those two games together, we’re going to be in good shape,” Porter said.
Porter also said they’re drawing confidence from the fact that the team they just faced in the Conference Semifinals, the Seattle Sounders, plays a similar style to RSL’s 4-4-2 diamond. He said that also helps with the tight turnaround, as the Timbers squeezed in a quick training session Friday in the Rose City and will do so again Saturday before departing for Utah.
“There’s not a ton of tactical changes that we’re going to have to make, a lot of the same things we want to exploit against Salt Lake were the same things we wanted to exploit against Seattle,” Porter said. “And I think our guys will have a lot of confidence knowing we just faced a really talented team in Seattle, playing a diamond and now we go face another really talented team playing a diamond.”
But despite all the similarities between the two teams and the number of high-stake games they’ve already played against each other this season, Timbers captain Will Johnson, who came to Portland this year after five seasons with RSL, said things start anew in the postseason.
“It’s just another great opportunity to get to a championship game,” Johnson said. “The four games we’ve played against them this year that kind of all goes out the window. This is the first time that we’ll play Salt Lake in a playoffs series, so it’s a fresh sheet for us.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.