At long last, the MLS Cup final is set. Real Salt Lake booked their spot on Sunday, defeating the host Portland Timbers 1-0 at Jeld-Wen Field to give them a 5-2 aggregate win and a date with Sporting Kansas City in the championship match in Kansas City on Dec. 7. Here are three thoughts on the match that vaulted RSL into the final and ended Portland's excellent season:
Portland just couldn't figure out RSL this year: Just one day after Sporting Kansas City vanquished their Houston Dynamo demons, Real Salt Lake reprised their role as Portland's kryptonite. The Timbers were the most improved side in the league this season, developing a playing style known as much for an incisive attack as it was for a stingy defense. Portland scored the third-most goals in MLS in the regular season, and only Sporting Kansas City conceded less.
But Real Salt Lake was the one side that manager Portland coach Caleb Porter could never figure out. The Timbers played RSL three times in the MLS regular season, twice in the playoffs, and once in the U.S. Open Cup. Their record in those games? A dismal 0-4-2. Portland allowed three or more goals in a regular season or playoff game four times. Three of those came against Salt Lake.
That surprsing defensive frailty reared its head in Portland's 4-2 loss in this series' first leg, and it did so again on Sunday night. Robbie Findley's opening goal in the 29th minute was a defensive breakdown by three of the Timbers' defensive stalwarts -- goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts could have done better than parrying away Luis Gil's long-distance effort into traffic, and defenders Michael Harrington and Futty Danso were clearly not on the same page when they allowed Findley to beat both of them to the ball and slot home an opportunistic goal that would be the death knell for this series.
Similar miscues found their way into the Timbers' attack as well. Their marvelous playmaker Diego Valeri did well to repeatedly get himself into dangerous positions in the RSL penalty box, but on three separate occasions his shot let him down in one way or another. Defender Pa-Moudou Kah missed a good opportunity off a header in the game's opening minutes that would have completely changed the complexion of the match. Even when Danso sent the stadium into hysterics with a headed goal, it was rightly called back for offside.
Make no mistake, Portland has a lot to be proud of this season. On their day, the team is among the most fun sides to watch in the league, and Porter's fresh approach to his tactics on the field has the potential to invigorate the league. But in order to take the next step, Portland will have to figure out how to get past a perennially solid RSL side. Or hope RSL's out-of-contract architect Jason Kreis leaves for greener pastures.
Robbie Findley = clutch: Has any U.S. player's recent career been as rollercoaster-like as Findley's? In 2010, the forward was coming off leading RSL to the 2009 MLS Cup and made the United States' 2010 World Cup squad after emerging during qualifying. Then he moved to Nottingham Forest, the U.S. changed managers, and Findley promptly fell off the map.
When Findley elected to return to MLS this season, his rights were held by, of all teams, the Timbers. Portland traded his rights back to RSL for allocation money, and just like that Findley was right back where he started his rapid ascent.
It didn't go so well at first. Stocked with a host of attacking talent including SuperDraft pick Devon Sandoval (who was excellent on Sunday), Ecuadorian Joao Plata and Colombian Olmes Garcia, Real Salt Lake simply didn't need Findley the way they did in 2009. The forward was in and out of the lineup, scoring only every so often and looking like a different player then the one that scored 12 goals in RSL's Cup-winning season.
Against Portland, something changed. Findley's speed gave the Timbers fits in the first leg, as he scored a goal and picked up an assist. On Sunday, the other dangerous aspect of his game was on display -- his opportunistic finishing ability. His winning goal came out of nowhere, and succeeded in completely deflating a Portland side that already had a huge mountain to climb. It was that pace and killer instinct that Salt Lake has lacked in recent playoffs -- especially last year, when they failed to score a goal en route to being eliminated by Seattle.
Findley's days at the forefront of the U.S. national team don't figure to be returning anytime soon. But RSL fans certainly won't mind if he can return to being a regular contributor at club level, especially if it results in the club's (and his) second MLS Cup.
The MLS Cup final will be a chess match: All signs point to Real Salt Lake's MLS Cup date at Sporting Kansas City's house being a tense, tactical battle in front of a raucous atmosphere at a jewel of a stadium in America's heartland.
Both sides got to this point by utilizing deep rosters mostly devoid of internationally-known names, both rely on their own specialized versions of balance across the field, and both are led by fiery, intense head coaches with a commitment to their own style of play. Those styles are exactly where the sides differ. Kansas City's high-pressure defending applies all across the field in their specialized 4-3-3, whereas Real Salt lake usually prefers short, controlled movements in a 4-4-2. This clash in strategy, combined with the teams' similarities, mean the league's championship could be decided by something as simple as team selection, and as complicated as whatever small tactical adjustments the coaches make throughout the contest.
RSL can take heart in having just knocked out a team that plays a somewhat similar system to what they'll face in the final -- but then again, Kansas City did a similar thing against Houston. Nobody has an obvious edge -- the teams' lone meeting in the regular season was a 2-1 Sporting win at RSL's Rio Tinto stadium thanks to a last-second goal from Ike Opara. So there's really no telling what will happen on Dec. 7. The only thing that's certain is that two weeks is too long to wait for it.