In a match-up of two in-form teams like Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers, the key to taking control of the series is which team can find the weak link in their opponent and take full advantage of it.
RSL found that weak link in the Timbers on Sunday, with Futty Danso playing the role of Achilles' heel, but the Gambia defender was hardly the only reason for the Timbers’ 4-2 defeat.
What RSL was able to do was what the Seattle Sounders simply couldn’t. Jason Kreis' team’s had a true speed option up top to trouble the Timbers big back line of Danso and Pah Modou Kah, with Robbie Findley unsettling Portland’s center backs. That resulted in a very costly Danso mistake that Findley converted into a goal.
The reason Portland’s back line was attacked in a way it wasn’t against Seattle was RSL’s creators. The midfield quartet of Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Luis Gil, and Sebastian Velasquez had Portland’s midfield spinning. Their movement and ability to pick apart the Timbers normally dominant midfield meant the visitors could never could get a foothold in the match.
Morales led the charge with his virtuoso effort. He did the most damage on corner kicks, delivering an assist on one and heading home another, but it can’t be understated how important his ability to help RSL keep the ball and keep pressure on Portland’s defense was.
How dominant was RSL’s midfield? Consider that the Timbers trio of Diego Valeri, Will Johnson and Diego Chara completed a combined 72 passes between them, the kind of number you might see Chara or Johnson come close to matching on their own when at their best. On Sunday night, that normally impressive trio was left chasing the ball and failing to deal with RSL’s passing.
It was no secret to RSL that controlling the midfield and using speed to test Portland’s defense was key to beating the Timbers. Kreis’s squad used that same formula to hand Portland an identical 4-2 thrashing at Rio Tinto Stadium on Aug. 30. On that day, it was Joao Plata terrorizing Portland’s defense with his speed, and Morales once again pulling the strings from midfield.
It is no coincidence that RSL has managed to go unbeaten against the Timbers in five meetings this year in all competitions, including a perfect 3-0 mark at home.
Does this mean the Timbers have no hope heading into the second leg in two weeks in Portland? Far from it. The Timbers are a very different team at home. They should be able to create chances against RSL’s defense, as they have done in RSL’s previous trips to Jeld-Wen Field, but the real question is whether Portland’s defense can hold up.
Danso has quietly been one of the unsung heroes in Portland’s strong end to the regular season. He went from rarely-used reserve to regular starter, forming an imposing tandem with Kah that dominated in the air and kept opposing attacks at bay. The problem is he remains a player with limited quickness, and is vulnerable to speedy threats.
Should we expect Caleb Porter to make a change, and sit Danso after a pair of sub-par defensive efforts? The reality is the Timbers don’t exactly have an option on the bench who is clearly better. Second-year pro Andrew Jean-Baptiste was a regular starter at center back for most of the year before losing his job in September. His demotion was due in no small part to his role in allowing a total of seven goals to RSL in two matches.
It was Jean-Baptiste, after all, who Plata terrorized in the last regular season meeting between the teams, and you can bet Kreis would be ready to deploy Plata or Findley with the express purpose of trying to put Jean-Baptiste in vulnerable positions.
Porter will likely stick with Danso, which would work, but only if the Timbers midfield plays much, much better. Valeri may be unable to do much more if the injury he has been playing through for the past month or so has worsened. If that is the case, Porter may have to go with Khalif Alhassan, saving Valeri for the second half of the second leg.
The key for Portland will be getting off to a fast start at home, and riding the momentum of a sold-out crowd that provides a clear home-field advantage. The Timbers used that energy to dominate Seattle in the second leg of their semifinal series, and they will need to jump on RSL early in order to keep Kreis’ team from building too much confidence.
That may be tough to do though, after a week that has seen RSL turn in a pair of reputation-building displays. The win against the LA Galaxy last week helped RSL end a drought in big games at home, while Sunday’s emphatic first-leg win against the Timbers was a statement game that showed us an RSL team that just might be rounding into championship form.