The first time the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake mixed it up this season was an elimination match.
That was 109 days ago. On Aug. 7, RSL beat Portland 2-1 in Sandy, Utah, to advance to the final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. When the teams cross paths for an uncommon sixth time in three months they will battle for an even bigger prize on Sunday at Jeld-Wen Field.
That prize is a spot in the MLS Cup final. For Portland to claim it, the Timbers not only must beat RSL for the first time this season, they must outscore the visitors by two goals to force extra time and by three to win the series outright.
History isn’t on the Timbers’ side, either. Eleven times in MLS history a team has taken a two-goal lead in the first leg of a two-match series. Only twice has the team that trailed by two goals come back to win the series.
Still, the Timbers believe they don’t have to do anything special to get the job done.
“It’s not a task that we look at and think, ‘Oh this is so difficult,’ ” defender Michael Harrington said. “We’ve been there. We’ve done it and we believe that we can do it.”
Twice this season the Timbers came back from two-goal deficits to earn draws — in the opener against New York at home and in an early-season road game at Colorado.
Timbers coach Caleb Porter points to a number of reasons his team should be confident. Among them is the Timbers home record of 12-1-5 including a playoff win over Seattle. Portland has 12 wins and four ties in its last 16 home matches, with two of the draws coming against RSL. Porter noted several times this week that his team has scored two or more goals at home eight times this season, and has won by two or more four times at home.
Starting this match down two goals won’t change the way his Timbers attack this challenge, Porter said.
“I don’t think it changes what we do at all, especially in the first half,” Porter said. “At home we push games, we look to attack, we look to defend, too. We’ve scored 32 goals at home. We’ve only lost one game at home. We have 11 shutouts at home.”
One of those shutouts was a 0-0 draw with RSL on Oct. 13. Porter points to that performance as an example of how the Timbers can succeed on Sunday. Real Salt Lake did not have a shot on goal that day. Only some timely saves by goalkeeper Nick Rimando kept Portland from winning.
“The worst thing we can do is to look at that two-goal deficit and to come out gunslinging and reckless to the point that we give up (a goal) and dig ourselves an even bigger hole,” Porter said.
Conversely, Real Salt Lake doesn’t want to only play defense, even knowing that a one-goal loss gets it to the title match.
Coach Jason Kreis said his team hasn’t been at its best when playing conservative soccer.
“If you sit back against a team as dangerous as Portland, you’re just going to allow them to have lots of attacking chances,” Kreis said. “They’ve shown to be a team that can score a lot of goals at home, so I don’t think (sitting back defensively) would be a good approach to the match.”
Portland is home on Sunday because it finished with the best regular-season record in the Western Conference. Real Salt Lake took advantage of playing the first match at home on short rest. Portland’s home-field edge is driven by passionate fans.
“We know if we get that first goal it’s not going to be good for them. And they know it,” Harrington said. “Really we’re just focusing on the first goal.”