PORTLAND — The Portland Timbers made history on Saturday. They just couldn’t make the night extra special.
Real Salt Lake’s tenacious midfield and three tremendous saves from goalkeeper Nick Rimando prevented the Timbers from getting a victory. As it stands, the 0-0 tie with RSL keeps Portland atop the Western Conference, at least for a day.
Portland’s 15th draw of the season keeps it one point ahead of Real Salt Lake. Both teams have one match remaining — and each plays last-place Chivas USA. Los Angeles, with games against San Jose and Seattle left, trails Portland by three points.
The Timbers (13-5-15, 54 points) clinched their first MLS playoff berth before the battle began with Real Salt Lake. When FC Dallas beat Seattle earlier in the day, it guaranteed Portland will be among the top five in the Western Conference when the regular season concludes next weekend.
“We’ve evolved this club so quickly … that to a certain extent making the playoffs is something we won’t talk about much, or even celebrate much,” Timbers coach Caleb Porter said.
Portland had the best chances to score, and would have produced a dramatic win if not for two stoppage time saves from Rimando. First he stopped Will Johnson’s direct free kick, then he denied Sal Zizzo’s header on the rebound.
Earlier in the second half, Rimando stole a goal from Kalif Alhassan who had close-range shot at the end of a cross from Jack Jewsbury that skidded through the penalty area. Alhassan’s chance nearly snuck behind the RSL keeper, but Rimando’s right hand got enough of the ball to make the save.
“A tough one, man,” Will Johnson said. “We’ve got to put one of those away.”
Porter agreed, calling Rimando the man of the match.
“We had three or four quality chances, and that’s all you can expect in a match like this,” the Timbers coach said.
Both teams’ determination to fight for possession in the midfield made meaningful possession difficult for either team. Real Salt Lake made Portland work hard for chances. The visitors’ midfielders denied space to Timbers Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, making it difficult for Portland to create through two of its most dangerous playmakers.
By forcing the Timbers to play more through the air than on the ground, RSL had the home team playing in its own half more than is typical during matches at pumped-up Jeld-Wen Field.
Salt Lake had 56 percent of possession, but the Timbers didn’t panic, keeping their defense organized to the point that goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts was never tested on the night.
“I thought we were stingy and organized, and you have to be against good teams like (RSL),” Porter said.
“We knew that if we were patient, we would get chances,” Johnson, the former RSL midfielder, said.
His stoppage-time free kick from 21 yards spun over the wall and was headed under the crossbar. But Rimando was in position to get both hands on the ball. It rebounded to the Timbers right and Zizzo tried to head the ball into the gaping left side of the net. Again, Rimando was up to the task.
Portland’s best chances in the first half came on counter attacks. In the 28th minute, Ricketts came out of his area to cut off a long ball, sent the ball forward for Jose Valencia whose cross was chipped high by Valeri. In the 43rd minute, Valencia sliced into the right side of the penalty area and slid a pass across the 6-yard box that just missed Alhassan, who fully extended himself trying to deflect the ball into the goal.
The Timbers extended their unbeaten string to 14 games, and didn’t lose in their final 15 home matches. The last five teams to visit Jeld-Wen Field left without scoring a goal. While noting that his team needs to do better converting chances, Porter said that by facing the top teams in the West down the stretch, the Timbers are primed for the playoffs.