Real Salt Lake played its third playoff game in seven days Sunday night after advancing to the MLS Western Conference Finals Thursday night on its same home pitch.
Thursday’s match left RSL banged up coming into Sunday night’s match, with leading scorer Alvaro Saborio out with a hip-flexer injury and Ned Grabavoy still on the bench after pulling his hamstring in the first leg semifinal match with Los Angeles.
Portland scored two bookend goals in Sunday night's matchup, but RSL took full advantage of its home field, scoring four goals to win the first leg of the Western Conference Finals, 4-2.
Nick Rimando didn’t have much to contend with most of Sunday night, except for Will Johnson’s 14th-minute free kick goal that nobody on earth could have stopped. And then there was an unexpected goal from Portland’s Frederic Piquionne in literally the final seconds of the game when the striker rose above his mark and pounded home a perfectly placed Jack Jewsbury cross to find the side netting far post. Again, there wasn’t much Rimando could do to stop the second goal, but it was clearly a dark mark on an otherwise stupendous game.
Tactics: Jason Kreis started the usual backline of Wingert and Beltran on the wings with Schuler and Borchers in the middle. Chris Wingert left the game in the 33rd minute with a rib injury and was replaced by Lovell Palmer. Wingert, Palmer and Beltran all played key roles in providing attacking and defensive width for the RSL diamond while Schuler and Borchers maintained relatively conservative positioning all night long.
Chris Wingert played 33 minutes Sunday night, which weren't 33 of his better minutes. First, he made an uncharacteristically poor decision to knock Diego Valeri off the ball and to the ground in the 13th minute that put Will Johnson behind the ball to blast it over the RSL wall and past Nick Rimando for the opening goal of the game. At some point during this time, Wingert suffered a broken rib. He tried to tough it out but it was clearly impacting his ability to stay with Portland speedsters Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara, let alone the crafty Valeri. He was replaced by Lovel Palmer.
Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler are as solid a central defense as any team in the playoffs this season. Borchers has been savvy and surprisingly physical during the playoffs, and between Portland’s big and physical front men in Ryan Johnson and his replacement Jose Adolfo Valencia, Borchers had to be Sunday night. He was very good all night, but the final seconds of the game were a testament to the importance of maintaining concentration until the whistle blows. Borchers got caught ball watching as Jack Jewsbury sent a perfectly targeted cross to Borcher’s mark, Frederic Piquionne, who rose up over Borchers and slammed it into the back of the net to make the score 4-2 and to make game two a little more intriguing too.
Chris Schuler is becoming the toast of the town in Salt Lake City. After returning to active duty a little more than a month before the playoffs, he has been totally reliable on defense, but so far in the playoffs, he is RSL’s leading scorer after heading home another rocket Sunday night to even the score in the 36th minute.
Tony Beltran is key to the success of RSL’s diamond midfield formation, with his ability to get forward into the attack to provide critical width and his speed getting back on defense. Beltran is known as a one-on-one defender, and like most he has to be goal-side to be effective. When Beltran struggles in games, it’s when he is out of balance and his forward momentum keeps him from getting back to defend outside the 18-yard box. Sunday night was not one of those nights. He was balanced, he was dangerous on offense, and he was effective on defense.
Lovel Palmer (sub '33) came on for a wounded Chris Wingert and played very well. He showed off his athleticism and speed and was equal to Tony Beltran’s balance from the right side by getting forward into the attack when needed but back on defense to keep Portland’s forwards contained.
Tactics: Jason Kreis learned from the first leg of the semifinals the importance of his diamond midfield, which he returned to the pitch once again Sunday night. Ned Grabavoy was on the bench resting a pulled hamstring, so Kreis started Thursday night’s hero Sebastian Velasquez for the second straight time at left mid. Luis Gil was on the right and Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales in their usual spots at the back and front of the diamond respectively.
Sebastian Velasquez is not only fast becoming a fan favorite, he’s learning how to manage a game. His energy has never been in question, but Velasquez can be known to overplay. Sunday night he exhibited patience and excellent field vision in his second start of the playoffs.
Luis Gil gave Jason Kreis everything he could have asked for from the young midfielder. Gil played the full 90 minutes and was dangerous on offense, sneaking into the box on several occasions with excellent touch on the ball. His defense wasn’t bad either.
Javier Morales did it all Sunday night. In addition to playing field general to perfection, he earned a second-assist along with Robbie Findley on Devon Sandoval’s goal as well as an unexpected 81st minute goal off a diving header when Joao Plata sent a perfect near-post corner kick to a tightly marked Morales who was able to shed his man and dive in for the goal.
Kyle Beckerman had acres of space in front of his defensive line Sunday night, where he was flawless transitioning the ball into the attack on a night when Portland’s aggressive mindset gave RSL numerous opportunities to counterattack. His delivery in the 41st minute may not have earned an assist when Robbie Findley scored, but it was as important in generating RSL’s second goal as Findley’s creativity.
Ned Grabavoy (sub '86) came on to spell Javier Morales, guard against the RSL playmaker getting injured in the final minutes, and to try out his recently injured hamstring.
Tactics: With Alvaro Saborio on the disabled list with a hip-flexor injury, rookie Devon Sandoval was called on to start Sunday night alongside the hot Robbie Findley. The young New Mexican has been a nice surprise for Jason Kreis this season, scoring six goals in all competitions.
Devon Sandoval was cool, calm and collected Sunday night. Known more for his physicality, Sandoval was that, giving as good as he got, but his footwork and passing was sneaky good. Sandoval was instrumental in the buildup to RSL’s second goal when his defensive work — in RSL’s third of the field, no less — and his perfectly weighted pass to Kyle Beckerman in the 40th minute, allowed Beckerman to put a dangerous ball into Robbie Findley’s path for the score. The favor was returned in the 49th minute when Robbie Findley received a Javier Morales ball along the right side and sent it into the middle for a waiting Sandoval, who touched the ball with his right foot to find the back of the net.
Robbie Findley started where he left off after the Los Angeles series, using his speed and skill out wide to send some devastating crosses into the box. His hustle paid off in the 41st minute after chasing down a Mamadou Danso mis-hit in the box to slalom around Danso and Portland keeper Donovan Ricketts for the unassisted goal that put RSL up 2-1. Findley started the second half on fire, receiving a perfectly weighted Javier Morales pass to split two defenders along the right side and perfectly target a waiting Devon Sandoval, who put away RSL’s third goal. Findley was subbed out in the 66th minute for Joao Plata. Man of the Match.
Joao Plata (Sub '66) Plata brought a spark to the field the minute he subbed on for Robbie Findley, keeping with the spirit of Findley’s terrific energy and runs into Portland’s third. He also brings strength at the corner that fans usually only expect from Javier Morales, and for the second time this season, Plata found Morales unexpectedly in the box for an 81st-minute goal.
Armando Villarreal and crew were relatively consistent Sunday night, with the usual nit-picky missed calls. Considering some of the calls this postseason, Sunday night’s game was very well called, including the length of the extra time that unfortunately allowed Portland the time needed to net a second score.
Portland clearly came to Rio Tinto Sunday night with the intent to score. It played a 4-3-3 formation with Rodney Wallace, Ryan Johnson and Darlington Nagbe up front and Will Johnson, Diego Valeri and Diego Chara in the midfield. They were all speedy, all extremely good on the ball and all crafty. They came in Sunday with confidence after blowing out a very good Seattle team in the semifinals, and the confidence was evident as they pressed hard in the first 30 minutes. The pressure netted a spectacular Will Johnson goal off a free kick in the 14th minute and Portland had the look of taking over the game until Chris Schuler tied things up in the 34th minute. After that, RSL’s nerves calmed down and Portland was forced on the defensive as RSL hammered home three more goals. But Portland does not die easily. A crafty Jack Jewsbury cross in the final seconds of the game allowed Frederic Piquionne to head one in before the whistle was blown to make game two just a little more intriguing.
Portland’s defense could not contain the speed of Robbie Findley or the craft of Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales. They simply did not have an answer for RSL’s attack. The physicality of the likes of Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou Danso were negated by a solid performance from Devon Sandoval, and Portland’s penchant for pushing the attack Sunday night made its midfield defense less effective, even with Will Johnson flying all over the pitch.
There was some concern from the moment RSL beat Los Angeles that a Western Conference game one would not be well-attended, being Salt Lake City and the Sabbath and all. But aside from a few empty seats behind the north goal and in the nosebleeds, the RSL faithful represented themselves nicely. The crowd was energetic, clearly doing everything it could to make the boys in claret and cobalt feel at home. The official attendance for the night was 17,333 on RSL’s first-ever Sunday home game.