PORTLAND, Ore. — In the midst of an unusually tight playoff race, the Western Conference's top two teams squared off Saturday night with first place and a chance to become the frontrunner for the Supporters Shield on the line.
Nearly 21,000 fans at Portland's JELD-WEN Field saw a match that didn't quite live up to the hype however, as the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake played to a 0-0 draw.
RSL took its league-leading 55 goals into the Rose City but couldn't break down a Timbers defense that's been increasingly stingy since the Claret and Cobalt scored nine goals in three matches on them during August.
"I think we lacked a little bit of sharpness in the attacking third," said RSL head coach Jason Kreis. "From our point of view, there was probably a little bit more focus on the defensive side of things. And there were some opportunities for me where some shots should have been taken and they weren't."
Kreis made just one unforced change in the starting lineup from his squad's last match, a 1-1 draw against FC Dallas two weeks ago. Lovel Palmer replaced Tony Beltran at right back, while Kenny Mansally (red card) and Javier Morales (yellow card accumulation) were serving mandatory suspensions — Chris Wingert and Yordany Alvarez inserted in their stead.
After withstanding Portland's initial attacking burst during the first 10 minutes, Real Salt Lake (15-10-8, 53 points) settled in and found some possessions of its own, culminating in a Robbie Findley header over the crossbar in the 18th minute.
But overall there wasn't much action in the first half. Aside from a few RSL free kicks, a pair of which skimmed past the Portland goal, and a couple of Timbers crosses that came tantalizingly close to finding their intended target at the back post, the two possession-oriented teams seemed to just feel each other out for first 45 minutes. Of the combined eight attempts on goal in the first half, neither team could put even one on frame.
The game's first shot on goal finally came in the 65th minute courtesy of Portland's Kalif Alhassan. Nick Rimando was up to the task however, stonewalling the young winger's uncontested look from inside the six-yard box.
"We're going to need a player like Nick to do that if we have any chance to win the Cup," Kreis said.
Rimando was called into action again in the waning moments, coming up with a trio of saves to keep the home side from securing all three points.
First, a 90th minute header from Portland substitute Frederic Piquionne forced Rimando into a reasonably comfortably catch on his goal line. Then Rimando was called upon to make two open-handed slapping saves in stoppage time on former Salt Lake man Will Johnson's free kick and the subsequent rebound header.
Portland (13-5-15, 54 points) remains one point ahead of Salt Lake atop the Western standings, but RSL can overtake them (even if it's just for just a few days) when they host Chivas USA on Wednesday in its final regular-season contest. Chivas will then turn around and host the Timbers next weekend for both clubs' final games before the playoffs begin.
"It was a cleaner performance for us against a dangerous team in a difficult place to pick up points," said Kreis. "If we can perform like that as we go into the playoffs — thinking that we'll have home-and-away series — this is what you have to do when you're away. I'm hopeful that we can take some lessons out of this and carry it through to the playoffs."
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