PORTLAND, Ore. — Real Salt Lake is 90 minutes from MLS Cup, and reaching the league’s pinnacle seems pretty straightforward — don’t lose by three.
Leading Portland 4-2 heading into the second leg of the total goals Western Conference final, RSL simply needs to avoid a three-goal defeat this Sunday to a team it hasn’t lost to in nine straight to advance to the Dec. 7 final.
History is definitely in Real Salt Lake’s corner too for the 7 p.m. kickoff at Jeld-Wen Field.
RSL didn’t lose a single game by three goals all season, and no team has lost a playoff series with a two-goal edge after Leg 1 since 2004.
It’s conceivable RSL could lose Sunday’s game by two goals and then be eliminated in overtime or a shootout, but such an outcome seems unlikely considering the club’s dominance of Portland.
However, considering what happened last month in the U.S. Open Cup final to D.C. United, don’t expect Real Salt Lake’s players to take anything for granted.
“We have to be aggressive and put our stamp on the field early,” said defender Nat Borchers. “The mindset’s gotta be right for a game like this. You can come into a game like this and think two goals is going to be enough and just sit back 'cause that’s the wrong mindset to have.”
Coach Jason Kreis summed it up best: “If we go there feeling like we’re protecting something we’re going to be in trouble.”
Against a desperate Portland team, RSL will certainly be under it defensively for stretches, but Kreis has no intention of sitting back and defending for 90 minutes. That’s what the club did in Seattle two years ago with a 3-0 series lead and it had to hang on for dear life after two Seattle goals early in the second half.
This time around, Real Salt Lake will surely try and pick its spots to go forward against a Timbers defense it's scored 12 goals against in five matches this season.
“We need to dictate the game. We need to go in there and put pressure on them and not just sit back for 90 minutes 'cause that’s going to be very difficult,” said defender Tony Beltran. “We can’t just completely focus on the defensive aspect. We have to go in there and do what we did at home — that’s hit them in their vulnerable spots and take advantage of our chances and score goals.”
Striker Alvaro Saborio has been ruled out of Game 2 because of the hip flexor injury that sidelined him for Game 1. Realistically though, Devon Sandoval might be a better option in this type of game anyway. He’s not as good in the air as Saborio, but his off-the-ball movement and willingness to chase down lost causes could force the Timbers into giveaways, which could spring a few RSL counterattacks.
MLS doesn’t use away goals as a playoff tiebreaker, but Kreis said Real Salt Lake would be in great shape if it could nip a goal at any point.
“Our guys have been through just about every scenario. We have the exact right mix of veteran talent and youthful exuberance to hopefully get the right result in Portland,” said Kreis.
That mix produced an emphatic 4-2 victory over Portland in the first leg two weeks ago.
The potential is there for a slow start by both teams with the two-week layoff between games, something RSL hasn’t done well with this year. Beltran, however, doesn’t think the break will be an issue.
“I think in this situation everybody is so focused, so committed and so goal-oriented on the task at hand it’s not going to be an issue,” said Beltran.
In two visits to Portland this year Real Salt Lake played to 3-3 and 0-0 draws, and a similar result the third time around would secure the club’s berth in the MLS Cup final.
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