Will Johnson is the most visible link between the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake, who will kick off the MLS Western Conference finals on Sunday night in Utah. The 26-year-old midfielder from Toronto spent four-plus years of his MLS career with RSL before he was traded to Portland last winter. He’s now the Timbers' captain and, as such, sees quite a few additional similarities between his old and new clubs.
“They’re clubs that, for me, do things the right way,” he told SI.com during a Friday conference call. “They want to play entertaining, attacking soccer, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is to win and I think you’ve seen that in the culture of both clubs.”
The idea of “culture” is central to the success of Portland, RSL and their respective coaches, Caleb Porter and Jason Kreis. Porter, 38, and Kreis, 40, are former players who care deeply about creating demanding yet supportive environments. They are ambitious. And they're both charismatic communicators who have specific, proactive ideas about how the game should be played while making the most of relatively limited resources.
RSL (17-11-8) and the Timbers (16-5-15) rank ninth and 10th, respectively, on the MLS payroll table. They represent a pair of the league’s smallest markets. Yet they finished with two of the top four regular season records this year before ousting much wealthier, more star-studded sides in the conference semifinals.
“As far as the small market thing, there is that side of things,” Johnson said. “Salt Lake is a small town and Portland is a small town, but as far as where they stand in the hierarchy of Major League Soccer, I’d argue that they’re teams that other teams are looking to model their programs after. So for the stature of both clubs, I don’t think of it as small market. Maybe small population, yes, and not buying designated players all the time, not getting those big names it’s hard to attract to those kind of cities. There’s definitely some similarities in building a good team in both cities.”
Not only have Porter and Kreis built good teams, they’ve built teams that compete with trademarked flair. Whether it’s the Timbers' high-intensity 4-3-3 or the rhythmic possession orchestrated by RSL’s diamond midfield, both squads have an unmistakeable style and play proactive soccer that's a good advertisement for the league. The Western finals may not have Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey, but they do feature clubs that are watchable and deserving.
“It starts with getting the right players, the right types of professionals, guys that are talented, guys that have character,” Porter said, echoing the sentiment Kreis has been expressing for years. “Then you have to get the culture right and you have to create an identity.”
Kreis said that Porter’s success in Portland echoes some of the elements he’s brought to Salt Lake City.
“We’re new coaches that came into a franchise that hadn’t been very successful. The first thing that both of us tried to establish is a winning mentality in the group, a competitive mentality in the group that starts every day in training,” Kreis said Friday. “We both want to be the team that bosses the game a little, controls the tempo of the match ... I think both teams have a group of players that are willing to do a lot for each other. That’s a really key philosophy of both groups.”
Culturally, Portland and Salt Lake City are pretty different. But on the soccer field, there are similarities in approach and outlook that should make for an intriguing series.
"They're a winning club. Good coach, good players, they've really earned respect over time," Porter said of RSL. "We're still proving that we're a good team. We're still earning people's respect." And the Timbers are doing it in comparable fashion.