Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
SANDY — In the buildup to Saturday's match with Portland, coach Jason Kreis was asked who would score Real Salt Lake's goals assuming leading-scorer Alvaro Saborio couldn't play. He basically said it was up to RSL's other creative players to pick up the slack.
For the first time in a long time, they actually did.
Javier Morales scored his first goal in 13 games, while Fabian Espindola scored his first in 12 games to lead Real Salt Lake to a 2-1 victory over Portland in front of a sellout crowd of 20,524 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
"We got big time plays from a couple of big time players there in the attacking end of the field," Kreis said.
With the victory RSL improved to 15-11-4 and clinched a playoff spot for the fifth straight season.
Ever the perfectionist who's always looking ahead, Kreis even acknowledged the significance of what Saturday's win means to the organization.
"We're obviously doing some things right. We need to occasionally stop and smell the roses, I guess, and appreciate the hard work the guys are putting in. That's a lesson for me maybe, not to be so critical all the time," Kreis said.
On a night when second-place Seattle lost to league-leading San Jose, Saturday's victory helped RSL pull into a second-place tie with Los Angeles in the Western Conference standings at 49 points.
The victory certainly didn't come easy. After scoring twice in the first half, Portland put Real Salt Lake under heavy pressure in the second half, scoring in the 61st minute and then hitting the crossbar in the 85th minute.
A few spectacular saves by Nick Rimando helped RSL escape with the much-needed victory with just four games remaining in the regular season.
"Three points are three points. We're happy, but at the end of the day if we're going to go a long way in the playoffs we have to be sharper, we can't be getting lucky and winning games at home," Rimando said.
The multi-goal game was RSL's first since a 2-1 victory over Vancouver back on July 27, and it didn't take long to get on the board.
Espindola opened the scoring in the 14th minute on a free kick just outside the penalty area that somehow found a gap in Portland's five-man wall and streaked into the back of the net untouched. Morales originally made a run up to the ball, simulating that he would take the free kick himself, but he instead rolled it backward to Espindola. That slight movement caused Portland's wall to separate and created a seam for Espindola.
The goal was Espindola's seventh of the season and first since June 16.
"There was definitely a concerted effort in the first 15 to jump all over them, make them feel it, get the crowd in it right away," RSL midfielder Will Johnson said.
Shortly before halftime, Real Salt Lake capitalized on another set-piece opportunity.
This time Morales took the 25-yard free kick himself, curling the ball over Portland's wall and just under the crossbar to give RSL the 2-0 lead in the 36th minute. Coaches always talk about players relaxing with two goal leads, and it nearly came back to haunt RSL.
After Portland keeper Joseph Bendik stoned Espindola on two close-range shots in the second half, the Timbers started to feed off the momentum and put RSL under heavy duress during the final minutes.
"Portland wasn't prepared to relax. They weren't going to give up the game," Kreis said. "They were throwing lots of numbers in our attacking half of the field and serving balls into the box, and that's where the goal came from."
Portland substitute Bright Dike headed in a Sal Zizzo cross in the 61st minute to whittle the deficit to 2-1, and he nearly equalized with a header off the crossbar in the 85th minute.
Rimando admitted that settling for the tie would've had everyone feeling in the dumps, but said the victory has everyone looking forward to building on the momentum next week against Chivas USA.
Without a midweek game, RSL should be well rested to play the last-place team in the Western Conference.
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