The Portland Timbers play host to Real Salt Lake Sunday evening at JELD-WEN Field (6 PM, ESPN), the second leg of the Western Conference Finals the stage for two teams vying for a berth in the MLS Cup.
RSL hold the advantage after a 4-2 triumph over Portland in the first leg in Utah, and following a two week break both teams are rested and ready to take the pitch in a winner takes all (by aggregate) matchup. The Timbers must win by at least two goals just to take the game to extra time, a three goal margin of victory required to win outright.
Both sides enter the contest at full strength, the only notable injuries the lingering muscle strains of the Timbers Argentine contingent of Diego Valeri and Maximiliano Urruti. Both are expected to be available come matchday, although Urruti may find a place harder to come by with Ryan Johnson and Frederic Piquionne ahead of him in the playoff pecking order.
Captain Will Johnson scored the opening goal against his old club, but the skipper surely would exchange that goal for a different outcome this time around. Four straight goals from Salt Lake followed Johnson’s opener, Chris Schuler equalizing before Robbie Findley took advantage of a defensive gaffe by Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso to slot past Donovan Ricketts to take the lead.
Additional tallies from impressive rookie Devon Sandoval and playmaker Javier Morales looked to put the game out of reach, but a late consolation from Piquionne provided Portland a lifeline in injury time to offer a glimmer of hope in the return leg this weekend.
The Timbers are due for a result against RSL after coming up short in five previous attempts this year in regular season, US Open Cup, and playoff matches, 3-3 and nil-nil draws the best results with the other three ending in defeat.
Whether Portland can win by a wide enough margin is the real challenge, a not insurmountable feat as evidenced by France overturning a similar deficit as they claimed their spot in the World Cup while dumping the Ukraine in the process.
The Timbers Army will be praying that some correlation between origins starting with the letter U can provide a superstitious mystique to the match, and that the Utah based club suffers a similar fate to the Ukrainians.
After two weeks of careful preparation Portland manager Caleb Porter will rely little on hope to see his side advance, but even he will admit a little luck won’t hurt his chances of finally getting one over on counterpart Jason Kreis, who so far has the first year coach’s proverbial number.
While some might say neither man can truly influence the match from the sidelines, there’s no question men like Morales and company are more than capable of turning the momentum in an instant.
The Timbers boast plenty of options in attack with Darlington Nagbe a constant threat, but for the Timbers to win they must shore up the back four that includes Danso and Pa Modou Kah in the middle and Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington on the flanks.
The normally reliable Ricketts was left exposed last time out, and it will be up to Will Johnson and Diego Chara to make sure the gaps in midfield are not left open for Real to exploit again. Porter may be tempted to drop another body deeper in midfield, but with two goals to make up the sacrifice of Rodney Wallace is too much to ask.
Kreis might also consider redeploying the defensive approach that saw RSL shut out the Timbers in the Rose City in October, yet employing the opposite strategy could prove more effective knowing Portland must push forward early and often.
Salt Lake are likely to retain an attack minded setup, the question is who starts with Alvaro Saborio available, meaning Sandoval or Findley are not guaranteed a spot after scoring last time out.
Sebastian Velasquez and Luis Gil provide pace on the wings with captain Kyle Beckerman in behind Morales, but a deep RSL bench means Ned Grabavoy and Joao Plata are in competition for places as well.
Former Timber Lovel Palmer may suit up from the opening whistle if Chris Wingert fails to recover from injured ribs that forced him to leave early in the last game, the defense rounded out with Schuler alongside Nat Borchers at centerback and Tony Beltran on the flank.
Netminder Nick Rimando is a more than capable backstop for Real, the player instrumental in thwarting scoring efforts for the Timbers when it really matters.
The loss at RSL was a major letdown for Portland after a massive derby win over the Seattle Sounders, so the onus is on the Timbers to find a way to harness the energy the home crowd provides to find a way to stay alive in the postseason.
The key for Real is to convert that atmosphere to anxiety before Portland can find a foothold, if one goal gets by the visitors there is little chance of the Timbers letting off like they did after taking an early lead at the Rio Tinto.
However the match concludes one thing is sure, the end of the campaign trail ends for at least one club in the Rose City come Sunday, while one moves on for a chance to hoist the league’s biggest prize in the MLS Cup.