Nat Borchers (left) played all 90 minutes in Real Salt Lake's opening-leg victory over Portland. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
You play to win the game.
Except, on occasion, in the MLS Cup playoffs, where being the best team over 90 minutes isn’t always the primary objective.
On Sunday night in Portland, Real Salt Lake will kick off the second leg of the Western Conference finals knowing that a loss is okay. It could be good, actually. If it comes by one goal, defeat still would send RSL to the MLS Cup final.
Thanks to a 4-2 win over the Timbers two weeks ago and the aggregate scoring system that determines the winner of a two-game, home-and-home series, RSL coach Jason Kreis faces tactical considerations that don’t exist during the regular season and which are anathema in nearly all athletic endeavors. How do you devise a game plan that’s concerned not with winning, but with not losing by too much?
Answer: for the most part, you don’t. If you're Kreis, you can’t. Deviate from the norm, and you risk veering too far from your comfort zone. Stay too conservative, and you’ll play right into the hands of a Timbers team that typically runs rampant at Jeld-Wen Field.
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“We’re a team that doesn’t do well when we approach matches with that mentality, as witnessed only a couple of weeks ago in our away [conference semifinals] match against the Galaxy [a 1-0 loss that could’ve been much worse]. We’re going to try to approach this match the same as we would any other,” Kreis said during a Friday conference call with reporters.
“We want to approach the match aggressively, but we also want to understand we are winning the series by two goals. You just go back to how you play with a lead and making decisions, both with the ball and without the ball, to put yourself in a place to kill the game,” he continued. “Our guys have been in so many tactical situations, I could ask them questions about what needs to be done and they’ll all have the correct answers.”
Indeed, while the “it’s okay to lose” playoff game might be unique to soccer, it’s far from foreign to RSL. This MLS Cup semifinal series is the club’s tenth home-and-home affair over the past six years. Although Salt Lake will be missing leading scorer Alvaro Saborío (hip) and veteran left back Chris Wingert (rib) due to injury, Kreis’ squad shouldn’t miss a beat. It boasts depth, experience and a firm grasp on a style of play predicated on controlling both the ball and a game’s tempo.
“It definitely changes the mentality and it makes it difficult when you go up two goals in a series and then you have to go away and defend a lead,” central defender Nat Borchers said during the Friday call. “I think Jason is absolutely right. We have to play the way we know how to play and that’s to be aggressive. It’s almost the mentality of being tied, of being at 0-0, starting the game fresh and just going for it.”
Portland certainly will be going for it. The Timbers trailed in the first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium, 4-1, before a stoppage-time header from Frédéric Piquionne pulled the visitors to within two.
Typically, a goal scored with seconds remaining in a 4-1 rout would be inconsequential. But within the adjusted priorities of the MLS playoffs, it was huge. Portland is within striking distance and can take the field Sunday free of panic and focused on playing its game.
“I don’t think [the deficit] changes what we do at all, especially in the first half. We’re at home,” Timbers coach Caleb Porter said. “When we’re at home, we push games. We look to attack, we look to defend too, and we’ve scored I think 32 goals [in 18 MLS matches] at home. We’ve only lost one game at home. We have 11 shutouts at home and we’re very aggressive and we’re always looking to score two goals or more every single game. That’s one of the things we always talk about and we’ve been able to do that nine times already at home and [six] times we’ve scored three goals or more.”
Portland is hoping to benefit from 90 minutes (or more, if the Timbers win by two) from Diego Valeri, the gifted Argentine midfielder who’s been dealing with a nagging groin injury. Porter said his leading scorer “looked good” during Friday training. The Timbers’ mobile, high-speed attack will be fueled further by the typically raucous Jeld-Wen crowd, which will be worked up for a game that likely is the biggest in the Rose City’s 39-year pro soccer history.
Obviously, Porter will have to take additional chances if the Timbers still trail by multiple goals in the second half. But like Kreis, he’s going to ask his team to concentrate on what it knows. The scenario already is pretty complicated. There’s no reason to make it more so.
“The worst thing we can do is look at that two goal deficit and come out guns slinging and reckless to the point where we give up and dig ourselves an even bigger hole. We’re going to do what we always do, which is in the first half try to push the game,” Porter said. “We’re going to focus on how we’ve played against [RSL] at home and focus more importantly on how we always play at home, and that’s progressive and proactive and that’s trying to score two goals or more.”
There may be two goals separating the teams at kickoff, but that’s not a lot for two of the league’s three highest scoring clubs. RSL (18-11-8) and Portland (16-6-15) have played five times already this season and averaged a combined 4.2 goals per match. On Sunday night, the team that plays its game best will be the one that gets to keep playing. The MLS Cup final, where winning matters most of all, is Dec. 7.