SANDY — Perhaps Real Salt Lake’s playoff experience wasn’t such a nonfactor after all.
RSL players and coaches alike downplayed their postseason experience heading into Game 1 of the Western Conference final, but the 4-2 victory over Portland seemed to prove otherwise.
From the 11 players on the field to the coaches making the tactical decisions from the bench, after the opening 20 minutes Real Salt Lake made all the right decisions. The second half in particular could be a case study for future MLS teams on how not to manage Leg 1 on the road.
After Portland’s bright, high-pressure start led to an early 1-0 lead, fatigue from three days rest and travel seemed to set in as RSL scored twice to take a 2-1 lead into the half.
Considering how well Portland played in the semifinal victory over Seattle, nobody was surprised to see the visiting Timbers show up at Rio Tinto Stadium and try to set the tone. Coach Caleb Porter’s tactical decision to keep pushing in the second half, however, was curious to say the least.
The smart thing would’ve been to drop off, let RSL come at them and hope for a counter-attack goal. Instead, the Timbers continued to push numbers forward and conceded a third and fourth goal before bagging a stoppage time goal to give them a little life.
RSL’s four goals were the most in a 90-minute playoff game since Chicago scored four back in the 2005 playoffs. Two teams have scored five in an overtime game.
After the match, RSL defender Nat Borchers was asked about Portland’s aggressive tactics in the second half, and he certainly seemed puzzled.
“They really wanted to push and get another goal and get back in the game. It was a little surprising to see them push so many numbers forward and allow us to counter the way we did,” said Borchers. “But at the same time that’s the way Portland’s gonna play, and obviously they’re aggressive and they’re not going to give up.”
Was it naïve of Portland to not accept the reality of the 2-1 deficit at halftime and keep the damage to a minimum?
RSL coach Jason Kreis said he doesn’t know what Porter’s objective was in the second half, but said it definitely went against the grain.
“If you look at it a little more closely, when you’re down you probably ought to be thinking about how to best get out of there down a goal; or down two goals how to best get out of there down two goals,” said Kreis.
That’s what Real Salt Lake did in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal at Los Angeles. It came out with a defensive mindset to avoid a big deficit heading into Leg 2, and even though it got somewhat lucky that the finishing from the Galaxy was dreadful, RSL achieved its objective.
Portland had the chance to take on the same mindset in the second half at Rio Tinto Stadium, but didn’t. Instead, it continued to push forward and just three minutes into the second half RSL hit the Timbers on a counter attack and took a 3-1 lead.
“In the second half in particular they started to push things a little bit, so I thought we were somewhat calm and knowing there’d probably be chances on the other end, and we just needed to do well and finish them and we did,” said RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy.
That calmness was likely the result of experience. The Western Conference final is RSL’s seventh two-leg MLS playoff series in the past six years — and 10th including Champions League. The Timbers, meanwhile, are making their first playoff appearance in the three-year history of the franchise.
“We’ve played in these two-legs series a lot, and it helps to have experience in them, whether that’s through failure or success,” said Grabavoy. “It definitely helps to go through different situations and scenarios, and we find ourselves in another one that’s completely different than the first leg.”
Before RSL starts to feel too good about itself though, Kyle Beckerman cautioned there’s something to be said for naivety.
“Not a lot of us had experience in the 2009 final and we went and won against a team who had won before,” he said. “It helps I think in ways, but also being naïve to what’s going can also help you to not know how important the game is.”
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