Three more games. That is the straightforward way Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter describes the task ahead of his team.
The third of those would be the MLS Cup championship match. To get there, the Timbers will have to do something they have not done during their remarkable turnaround season: defeat Real Salt Lake.
That challenge starts at 6 p.m. today at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The second leg will be in Portland in two weeks.
In four meetings, including a U.S. Open Cup semifinal, RSL has twice won at home and twice earned draws in Portland, one with a late goal to tie 3-3 and the other scoreless.
“We haven’t beaten Salt Lake, but I think we feel like we’ve performed well in a lot of the games,” Porter said.
“In the 3-3 draw we had the attack going, we scored three goals but we didn’t defend well enough,” Porter said. “I look at the 0-0 draw and we defended very well but we didn’t create enough, so if we can put those games together we’re going to be in good shape.”
Shape is one thing the Timbers won’t need to adjust for. RSL likes to play with a diamond shape in midfield, which is the formation Seattle used in that two-game series. But it is a formation RSL has used much more than Seattle.
Unlike Seattle (which was disrupted by injuries and other factors this season), there is a cohesiveness to RSL that has made it one of the more consistent teams in MLS over the last five years.
Most of the key players have been with RSL for five or more seasons, including goalkeeper Nick Rimando, defenders Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert and midfielders Ned Grabavoy, Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales. Forwards Robbie Findley and Alvaro Saborio are each in their fourth season with RSL.
“They have good players, a lot of technical players on their team that like to keep the ball,” the Timbers’ Darlington Nagbe said. “I feel like it’s a tough match when we play them because we try to play the same way. So it’s going to be whoever takes advantage their chances.”
RSL coach Jason Kreis said it is difficult to pinpoint differences between his club and the Timbers.
“Both teams are trying to dictate the tempo and trying to get on top of things. I think that’s what makes them pretty even affairs,” Kreis said. “And I think both teams have a group of players that are willing to do a lot for each other.”
Will Johnson played five seasons with RSL before being traded to Portland in the offseason.
The Timbers’ captain said RSL and Portland might not have the marquee players that clubs such as Los Angeles, Seattle and New York have, “but as far as where they stand in the hierarchy of Major League Soccer, I would argue that they are a team that other teams look to model their programs after.”
With three games remaining on the championship trail, seven other teams in the Western Conference would gladly trade places with the Timbers and RSL right now.