Friday night was the third time Real Salt Lake has played the Portland Timbers in the last 24 days. The Claret and Cobalt last played the Timbers at Jeld Wen Field in Portland Aug. 21, escaping with a 3-3 draw despite going down a man. RSL led the series 1-0-1 going into the match. For a team more than two thirds of the way through the season, RSL appears to have discovered another gear just in time to close out the season.
When many of Major League Soccer's best teams, including Portland, are facing the fitness struggles that often come this time of year, RSL controlled the run of play on its way to a 4-2 win with fitness and a fire-in-the-belly attitude that has fans giddy with excitement as Real Salt Lake makes its way toward the playoffs and a potential Supporter's Shield.
Chris Higbee is the general manager of DeseretNews.com and occassionally writes about Real Salt Lake.
Nick Rimando rarely misses when the shot comes from a distance. But Friday night saw Portland forward Darlington Nagbe take a superbly crossed ball from Portland defender Michael Harrington and send a skipping ball right at Rimando that he misjudged on the bounce. The goal was a momentum changer and breathed life into a Portland team that was looking dejected after going down 2-0 before a quarter of the game was over. Rimando's stop on Diego Chara in the 77th minute was superb, but Tony Beltran's ball-watching left Portland's Sal Zizzo wide open to make what was looking like a rout respectable for Portland.
Tactics: Carlos Salcedo joined Nat Borchers at center back Friday night for the second time in two games. The duo have the best record of the eight center back pairings Real Salt Lake has used this season at 7-1-2 in the 10 games they've played together.
Chris Wingert made an uncharacteristic mistake Friday night. Rather than closing out space on Darlington Nagbe in the 32nd minute, when he had space to do so, and with Nat Borchers backing him up, he allowed Nagbe to set up his shot unimpeded, and Nagbe's boot made it past Nick Rimando to breathe life into what appeared to be a deflated Portland squad up to that time.
Nat Borchers was the single most important contributor in sapping Portland of the momentum gained by its first half goal. Each time Portland tried to mount an attack, Borchers was either pulling the defensive strings, challenging a header or just plain outplaying Portland's forward line.
Carlos Salcedo was solid Friday night. His positioning and patience continue to show improvement. Salcedo earned a yellow card in the 40th minute.
Tony Beltran appeared to have Portland's forward line in check until he got caught ball-watching in the 77th minute. After Nick Rimando parried away a blistering Diego Chara shot, Beltran's mark, Sal Zizzo, was left alone to run up unmarked onto the rebound for Portland's second goal, and that after going down a man on Zemanski's red card.
Tactics: Jason Kreis seems to have settled on the Grabavoy-Morales-Beckerman-Gil combo in the midfield for the foreseeable future. The three veterans have been key to RSL's possession dominance this season, and Luis Gil appears to be coming into his own with far greater consistency as of late.
Ned Grabavoy once again played the energizer in the midfield. Tucked in beside Javier Morales much of the night, and with only three Portland midfielders to contend with, RSL seemed to have two offensive midfielders pressing the attack with Grabavoy there. His hard work paid off in the 15th minute when he slid a ball to his left from 15 yards out where Joao Plata did the rest to beat Portland's Andrew Jean-Baptiste for RSL's second goal.
Javier Morales didn't get credit for a second (or third as the case might have been) for his pinpoint perfect pass 25 yards across the field to Kyle Beckerman in the ninth minute, but if not for it, RSL would have had to wait longer than nine minutes to score its first goal of the game. It's usually Morales who takes RSL's corner kicks, but when in the 55th minute Joao Plata sent a perfectly targeted ball into an unmarked Javier Morales, Morales brought down the ball with his left foot and sent the ball to the goal with a bicycle kick that will surely be a contender for goal of the year. Morales' 67th minute assist on Alvaro Saborio's goal was perfectly executed, sent in with pace and accuracy. Man of the Match.
Kyle Beckerman hit the ground at 60 miles per hour Friday night. Whether tracking back to take control of the ball off the back line or earning a second assist in the ninth minute on Luis Gil's goal, he was in terrific form. He earned a yellow card after getting tangled up with Portland's Diego Chara in the 58th minute.
Luis Gil's ninth-minute goal shows why he continues to make it into Jason Kreis' starting lineup. After a great run into the box, he was in the perfect place at the perfect time to take Joao Plata's superbly weighted ball and place it exactly where lanky Portland keeper Donovan Ricketts couldn't reach it — just inside the right post. Gil found himself the unlucky recipient of referee Baldomero Toledo's immediate show of control in the second half when he earned a yellow card minutes in for holding on to the ball after a whistle was blown on RSL.
Sebastian Velasquez (Sub '72) subbed on for Luis Gil. Velasquez was dangerous in the box, but his defense left something to be desired Friday night. Good thing RSL was mostly on the offensive with Portland down to 10 men by the time he was called onto the pitch.
Tactics: Alvaro Saborio is back in the starting lineup after missing two games. Joao Plata was his starting strike partner. Considering the matchups — Saborio and former RSL defender Rauwshan McKenzie and Plata versus bull-in-a-china-shop Andrew Jean-Baptiste — Jason Kreis was clearly hoping to exploit the untested pairing of Portland defenders with usual starter Pa Modou Kah out on red card accumulation.
Alvaro Saborio did exactly what was needed to open up the scoring for the likes of Joao Plata and Luis Gil. He drew attention. With Saborio double-teamed anywhere near the box, Plata was able to take Portland's Andrew Jean-Baptiste one-on-one several times during the night, including the isolation in the 15th minute that gave Plata his third goal on the season. But it became Saborio's turn to add to the score sheet in the 67th minute when he headed in a Javier Morales free kick, Saborio's 10th goal of the season.
Joao Plata owes Ned Grabavoy for the assist in the ninth minute that put RSL on the board early. Grabavoy's dummy on the ball froze Portland's defense just enough to allow Plata's pass to find Gil just outside the six-yard box where Gil did the rest. But he earned his 15th minute goal all by himself. Plata made a nifty step-over move to get around the more physically imposing (but less agile) Andrew Jean-Baptiste to pound the goal into the back of the net. Plata continued to pester the Portland front line all night, earning Andrew Jean-Baptiste a yellow card in the 44th minute for pushing Plata out of frustration. Unfortunately, Plata's cheekiness earned him a yellow card in the same minute.
Robbie Findley (Sub '61) Findley subbed on for Joao Plata and seemed to pick up from where Plata had left off with dangerous runs and terrific positioning that helped clear space for RSL's second-half barrage. That said, Findley seems uninterested in taking the shot lately when he has the chance. He had two clear opportunities to test Rickettes Friday night after doing some hard work that deserved a payoff. But they turned into lost opportunities due to his penchant to pass rather than shoot. Like any striker, Findley needs goals to build the confidence to get more. If he intends to play a leading role in RSL's run into the playoffs, it's time to get the scoring started.