Timbers Versus Real Salt Lake: The Trail Ends In Oregon

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.

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Timbers Versus Seattle: MLS Cup Playoffs, Cascadia Style

The Portland Timbers travel north to take on the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field this Saturday (7 PM, NBC Sports), a monumental clash of regional foes in a match with the highest stakes yet for either club in the MLS era.

While these sides met numerous times in the postseason during the NASL and second division incarnations of the two clubs, by orders of magnitude those contests pale in comparison to the anticipation of what is arguably the biggest derby in the longstanding and storied history of the rivalry.

Past derbies and even the four consecutive US Open Cup finals the Sounders played in fail to meet the level of intensity and apprehension sure to be on display this weekend, an encounter between two teams with quite literally everything riding on results of this two legged affair.

The Timbers enter the match in form following a 5-nil thrashing of Chivas USA in the final regular season outing, a result that capped eight matches unbeaten to complete the campaign and claim first place in the Western Conference.

That finish also put a stamp on the marked improvement Portland made under new manager Caleb Porter, leading the club to its first postseason appearance in the MLS era after the first two seasons ended in coming up short in the inaugural year and an even more futile effort at the second attempt.

Seattle, meanwhile, earned their fifth consecutive playoff berth in less auspicious circumstances, just a month before season’s end looking like Supporters Shield favorites only to fall to earth with a miserable run of seven matches without a win to round out the schedule.

Ultimately the Sounders relied on the misfortune of other teams to back their way into the postseason, but in spite of a forgettable finish Seattle managed to turn things around with a 2-nil triumph over the Colorado Rapids in the single match elimination round on Wednesday.

A cracking goal from Brad Evans put the Sounders in command a half hour into the match, but a perilous decision from goalkeeper Michael Gspurning to charge out of his box and inexplicably handle the ball in the waning moments to earn a red card put his side in a precarious position.

Eddie Johnson’s well worked strike in stoppage time bailed out the Austrian and relieved the tension for a sea of Rave Green fans, who will be even more on edge with a Timbers team coming to town that dispatched the Sounders 1-nil in the Rose City just two weeks ago.

That outcome leveled the results between the sides this season, a draw in Seattle in March and a Sounders victory in the Emerald City in August a sign of the growing parity between the teams. The most recent win for Portland not only piled on to Sounder misery in their now broken losing streak, but also denied them the Cascadia Cup as the Vancouver Whitecaps walked away with the trophy this year.

That double blow provides further incentive for a star laden Seattle side to succeed, Clint Dempsey finally notching a goal in the club’s regular season finale to start to repay the league’s faith in his big money midseason signing.

The return of the club’s three US Men’s National team stalwarts offers a more composed Sounders squad than the one that struggled through a stretch of international absences and injuries.

While Obafemi Martins is still suspect with a groin strain, Johnson appears fully recovered while Djimi Traore and Shalrie Joseph provide additional depth.

Traore paired well with Jhon Kennedy Hurtado at centerback in the win over Colorado, but with Gspurning gone backup netminder Marcus Hahnemann will need to play big to ensure he doesn’t see Portland put another goal past him.

DeAndre Yedlin was pulled at halftime and youthful exuberance may see Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid opt for veteran poise in March Burch or perhaps Evans dropping back into defense, with the steady presence of Leo Gonzalez on the opposite flank.

Pulling Evans out of the diamond midfield recently employed to open up space for Dempsey could reduce the supply line, but may provide an opening for Argentina’s Mauro Rosales to offer creativity if not defensive cover.

Osvaldo Alonso is sure to find himself occupied by the darting runs of Portland’s Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe up the middle. The Cuban lies deep as the base of the diamond, and Dempsey at its tip will be hard pressed to find time to create space with Diego Chara and Timbers captain Will Johnson nipping at his heels.

One time Timber Adam Moffat is now finding a home in the Seattle midfield, the Scot sure to be up for it against a club that deemed him surplus to requirements in 2011.

Timbers striker Jose Valencia will be keyed up as well, the young Colombian earning the manager’s confidence with recent starts, but may find his place challenged by Ryan Johnson, whose goal as a substitute against Chivas marked the Jamaican’s ninth of the year, one of four Portland players with as many or more than Seattle’s top scorer Johnson.

That balanced attack is further complemented by wide forward Rodney Wallace, the Costa Rican’s aggressiveness instrumental in creating chances and goals all season.

The Sounders Johnson possesses a potent partner in Lamar Neagle, the Federal Way native a hometown hero hoping to get one by Donovan Ricketts, who denied him on several occasions the last time these two teams met.

To keep the Seattle attack at bay the Great Wall of Gambia lines up with Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso in the middle, while Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington continue to prove their worth on the wings.

As is often the case there is little to separate two sides espousing vastly different philosophies, the slashing and swashbuckling style of Seattle in contrast to the deliberate possession of Portland.

The selection available to the Sounders provides a paper advantage over the Timbers, yet the talent at Schmid’s disposal is inconsistent, at times appearing world beaters and in others more like mercenaries without a common mission.

While Portland lacks the celebrity names on their roster, a team that in recent years more closely resembled the Bad News Bears is now a story of redemption under Porter, the likes of Wallace, Nagbe, and Kalif Alhassan enjoying career years under the new gaffer.

The astute pickup of MLS assist leader Valeri and the league leading clean sheets of Ricketts are tangible examples of why the Timbers enter this match as surprising favorites, the Sounders in the unfamiliar position of underdog against a team typically referred to by Seattleites as their little brother.

That role reversal surely ups the ante in the stands as well, the traveling Timbers Army sure to remind their hosts that baby brother is all grown up.

For the Emerald City Supporters the thought of Portland advancing at their expense (and likewise for their counterparts) is an unfathomable option, but after half a decade of anointing the Sounders all but champions their team’s most notable silverware is still the sheen of ever spinning turnstiles.

While Cascadia Cups and USOC titles are nothing to discount, both clubs know full well that the one to bring the MLS Cup to the Northwest for the first time will be the ones to make an indelible mark in the annals of history, not to mention on the psyche of the opposition.

It is still early days in the quest for the league’s most coveted trophy, whomever survives this series takes an immeasurable leap forward with the confidence to claim it.

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Timbers Versus Chivas USA: Bottom To Top On Tap

The Portland Timbers travel to Chivas USA to square off in the final match of the regular season at the StubHub center in Carson, CA, on Saturday (7:30 PM, ROOT Sports), a contest that pits one of the Western Conference’s top sides against it’s lowliest.

The Timbers are riding a seven match unbeaten streak into the encounter, a nil-nil draw at home providing a slim advantage over then second place Real Salt Lake, who took at least temporary hold of first place with a 2-1 win over the Goats on Wednesday evening.

Real’s win also gives them the current pole position in the Supporters Shield standings, but with their final game played a loss for the New York Red Bulls and draws for both Sporting Kansas City and Portland are the results required to maintain their precarious grip on their first chance at silverware since winning the MLS Cup in 2009.

Portland are poised to overtake RSL in the West and in the Supporters Shield race, but also need the other aforementioned results to attain their first top flight trophy outside Cascadia since a division championship and best regular season record back in 1975 during the club’s first incarnation in the NASL days.

The fact that the Timbers are even in this position comes down to manager Caleb Porter, the first year MLS head coach utterly transforming a team that finished second to last in the West a year ago (above only Chivas) to the near pinnacle of the league now.

Portland’s turnaround serves a hopeful example to their weekend opposition, Chivas in need of a similar turnaround to resurrect a club struggling to find an identity as a transplanted Mexican brand in an American competition.

A fifth straight year of missing out on the postseason is doing nothing for attendance numbers for Southern California’s less glamorous side, and with a Timbers team coming to town a healthy complement of Timbers Army traveling support could make this feel like a home match for the visitors, who are on the verge of competing in their first ever MLS playoffs.

Clinching a place was already a foregone conclusion before last week’s game courtesy of a Seattle Sounders defeat, now how high a seed Portland can claim comes down to their execution against the Goats, who bucked the odds when they forced the Timbers to battle back for a point in a 1-1 draw back in mid-September.

Designated Player Diego Valeri notched the necessary equalizer to counter Bryan de la Fuente’s opening goal, offense not the issue for a young Chivas squad all trying to impress in a late season audition similar to what Portland players endured in a similarly dismal 2012 campaign.

The issue for Chivas is at the back, where even the addition of former US National team captain Carlos Bocanegra at midseason offers little improvement to a team that is shipping 2.4 goals per game in matches played by the centerback.

The former Fulham star partners with Mario de Luna, a player who is best known in the Rose City for shoving a ballboy in a frustrating 3-nil loss in an increasingly demoralizing season.

Thankfully for Chivas only one match remains, and Carlos Borja and Jaime Frias will be among the first to give up their spots at outside defense for a winter break, while an abdominal injury to the ever reliable Dan Kennedy in goal means Tim Melia likely gets the nod for a second straight start to end the season.

Chivas manager Jose Luis Real is doing what he can to salvage something from the season, trying to implement a style that shores up a leaky defense while highlighting the attacking creativity in midfield.

Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres is the lone striker up top, the speedy Mexican capable of unlocking opposing defenses as demonstrated with seven goals in 13 matches since joining the club in July.

To feed the hungry young forward Real employs a five man midfield with Edgar Mejia and Oswaldo Minda as the defensive pivot in behind Eric Avila, Carlos Alvarez, and de la Fuente.

The latter three will all be looking over their shoulder after Julio Morales scored the lone goal for Chivas in the team’s loss to RSL, tallying less than a minute after subbing into the match.

Following the last meeting between these teams Andrew Jean-Baptiste lost his place to Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso, who now makes up half of the Great Wall of Gambia with Pa Modou Kah in the middle, who along with Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington on the flanks are contributing to a record breaking season for goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.

The Jamaican leads the league with 13 clean sheets, and the current backline boasts a mere two goals conceded in the past five outings.

While the defense is doing the business to ensure points in recent matches, the attack is doing just enough with league assist leader Valeri at less than his best with a niggling groin injury that still troubles the Argentine.

Countryman Max Urruti is still questionable to return to the matchday roster with a hamstring strain of his own, in the South Americans absence the creative impetus rests with team leading goalscorer Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan to orchestrate the offense.

A knock to the head of Jose Valencia in the draw to RSL could leave the ever improving Colombian on the bench as well, opening a door for the out of favor Ryan Johnson to return to a starting role, unless Frederic Piquionne usurps the place first.

There’s no lack of choice for Porter with Rodney Wallace, Ben Zemanski, and Sal Zizzo all available for selection, the Timbers injury list diminishing to deepen the roster entering the campaign’s crucial juncture.

Captain Will Johnson and Diego Chara solidify the midfield in behind, and it’s no coincidence the return of both players to the lineup at the beginning of September coincided with the onset of club’s current good run of form.

Come Saturday a team playing for titles is odds on to topple a squad with little to play for than pride, yet the onus is on Portland to come good with goals to ensure success.

If playoff hopefuls Philadelphia Union and the Chicago Fire can take all three points at the weekend, a remarkable regular season reversal will be one for the history books in Portland.

Should Portland somehow win the Supporters Shield in the last round of play, there’s no telling what this team can accomplish under Porter in the postseason.

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