Western Conference Final Presents Ultimate Test For Timbers

Portland has yet to beat the Utah club in 4 matches in 2013
by Ray Marcham   |   Sunday, November 10, 2013

Green Logs – column on Portland Timbers (PTFC) & the Portland, Oregon area soccer scene.

The Portland Timbers have beaten their biggest rival. Now, they face their biggest test against the one club that has had their number over the past few months.

After a decisive 5-3 aggregate win over the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Western Conference Semifinals, the Timbers now must turn around quickly and get ready for a Sunday night clash with Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium and the first leg of the conference final. It will be the ultimate test for Portland, as RSL has been the one club that seems to have figured the Timbers out.

While the Timbers will go into the match relatively healthy, one of their biggest nemeses will miss the match. Alvaro Sabario, RSL’s leading scorer, will miss the Sunday’s game after injuring a hip flexor against the LA Galaxy on Thursday night. But, as he’s only played in 16 matches this season, this is something RSL is used to dealing with. He’s the RSL player that will miss the match, as the rest of the roster is healthy and available.

In the last 3 months, Portland and RSL have faced each other four times, and three of those games were in August. RSL has yet to lose to Portland this season, winning twice at Rio Tinto Stadium and getting two draws at JELD-WEN Field. They are the only club to have beaten Portland twice this season, and that just adds to the confidence they will have going into Sunday night’s opening leg.

It was RSL that knocked the Timbers out of the US Open Cup, winning 2-1 in the semifinals in Utah on August 7. It was in this match that Portland’s Will Johnson injured a shoulder that kept him out for a month.

Two weeks later, RSL snagged a point in a wild 3-3 draw at JELD-WEN Field on an extra-time goal by Cole Grossman, which wiped out Portland’s possible match-winner from Kalif Alhassan in the 85th minute. Not only did Johnson, the Portland captain, miss this one, but RSL had no Kyle Beckerman, who was suspended because of yellow card accumulations. RSL had been reduced to 10 men in the 79th minute after Yordany Alvarez saw red after a harsh tackle to Diego Chara, but were able to get the point

Then, on Aug. 30, RSL cruised to a 4-2 win over the Timbers back at The RioT, scoring 2 goals in the first 15 minutes of the match, then putting it away with two goals in second half after a straight red to Ben Zemanski dropped the Timbers to 10 men. This was also the match that Diego Valeri injured his adductor muscle, an injury he’s dealt with since.

The two sides then played to a scoreless draw in Portland on October 19, which saw a few opportunities and a dominant performance by RSL’s Nick Rimando late in the match, especially a double-save in extra time, that preserved the point for the visitors. The point also clinched a playoff spot for RSL, while Portland had clinched earlier in the day following Seattle’s loss at FC Dallas.

But this is a Timbers side that has cranked up the intensity since that last draw to RSL, which was also the regular season home finale for Portland. They have run off three dominant performances since that RSL draw, blowing away Chivas USA in the regular season closer at the StubHub Center, and then getting their first win in Seattle in eight years last weekend in the first leg of the conference semis. Those were Portland’s first two conference road wins of the season, and they could not have come at a better time.

The schedule for the conference final is awkward, with the second leg in Portland taking place two weeks after the first leg in Sandy because of the FIFA international schedule. While both sides aren’t expected to take a big hit in call-ups, it will also allow plenty of time to rest, look back at the first leg and plan ahead.

It’s also hoped that Sunday’s match will be better than the opening leg of the Eastern Conference Final, which saw the Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City play to a scoreless draw in Houston. SKC hosts the MLS Cup Final if the win the second leg back at Sporting Park, but if Houston wins, then the RSL-Portland winner hosts the MLS Cup Final. So, there’s much to play for beyond winning the conference.

Sunday night should be cool, but pleasant for the match in Utah. The forecast is calling for clear skies and temps dropping into the upper 30s. That’s much better than what could happen in November in the Salt Lake basin, which has already seen snow this fall.

It’s been six years since the Timbers earned their way into a league semifinal, when they beat Vancouver in the USL 1st Division quarterfinal in 2007 (Portland earned a bye into the 2009 USL 1st Division semis after having the best regular season record). But they haven’t won a semifinal/conference final since 1975, when they beat St. Louis and made the NASL’s Soccer Bowl. That came after beating Seattle in the quarterfinals in Portland.

The Timbers wouldn’t mind history repeating itself. But they must first get past the one club they haven’t beaten in 2013, RSL. Sunday’s 1st part of the 2-part saga will be the biggest challenge yet.

NEXT UP: November 10 – Portland Timbers vs. Real Salt Lake, Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah. 9 p.m. EST, ESPN, ESPN Deportes.


Washington State
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Portland Timbers
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Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.