After trouncing the Portland Timbers 5-2 over two games, Real Salt Lake takes on Sporting Kansas City for the MLS Cup title tomorrow – a matchup almost too close to call, according to senior and longtime Timbers fan Ben Meaders.
“I don’t know,” Meaders said. “After that [game] I may take up with RSL, but they have to do it in Kansas City’s house, and that place is a fortress this year.”
Junior Geoffrey Fogle saw Salt Lake’s performance at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland as just a warm up for the tested squad and, like Meaders, anticipates a drawn-out battle.
“They’re going to be out for blood,” Fogle said. “It’s going to be a game where RSL has that experience of being there in that situation, winning the Cup a couple years back. But the best thing about Sporting’s situation is that they’ve never been there. They don’t have to worry about overestimating the situation. They can just go in there and do their thing.”
In the Eastern Conference bracket, Sporting Kansas City triumphed over the Houston Dynamo, denying them a chance to continue their Eastern Conference championship title run.
Two seasons ago the Dynamo edged Kansas City out by two points, and because aggregate scoring had yet to be introduced – advancement to the next round now decided by the total score differential over a two-game series – that spelled the end for SKC’s dreams of a title.
The Dynamo jumped to an early lead just three minutes in, but Kansas City soon responded with a goal of their own, as CJ Sapong exploited a gap to hit the back of the net.
“To go in there and manage to pull out a point is really, really hard,” Fogle said. “The fan base there is crazy, and they love it … if you put them with Timbers fans, they’re up there with them.”
After a game of missed chances and close calls, Kansas City’s Dom Dwyer clinched the finals berth with a cool, measured dodge around sliding Houston defender Kofi Sarkodie and a clean slot to the net.
Coming into the Portland/Real Salt Lake matchup, Meaders pointed to the squad’s cohesiveness as key.
“It’s going to be a full team effort,” Meaders said. “It has to be. That’s the way they play now. Ricketts is going to have to be off his freaking rocker though. He’s going to have to be very, very good because that’s just how it is.”
Coming in last week, RSL was 3-0-2 against the Timbers for the 2013 season.
Portland opened the first game of the series with a goal from former RSL midfielder Will Johnson. A restart from 26 yards out found Johnson slotting a shot in the upper right, curving it in just over the top of the wall and past Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
The goal seemed more a boon to the Utah squad than the Timbers, as RSL began a streak of dominant play that would continue for the rest of the game.
In the 35th minute, Javier Morales drilled a shot past the Timbers’ Donovan Ricketts to break open the game for Real Salt Lake, tying the score and starting the Claret and Cobalt’s victory run.
Six minutes later, Portland’s Mamadou “Futty” Danso mishandled a long pass under pressure from RSL’s Robbie Findley.
With Findley close on Danso’s back, the Timbers defenseman made a slight but ultimately fatal error, accidentally toeing the ball into Rickett’s penalty area.
Findley took advantage of the opportunity by quickly circumventing Danso, beating Ricketts to the ball and touching it in for a 2-1 lead.
The Utah squad would go on to tally two more goals, in the face of a Portland team who just couldn’t get their momentum to stick.
Freddie Piquonne logged the Oregon squad’s only other goal deep into stoppage time to spark a bit of hope for the next game, as Real Salt Lake took the home victory 4-2.
The second leg of the series showed a different Portland. This time around, the Oregon squad pushed through the full 90 minutes, making the Claret and Cobalt work for every attempt.
Unfortunately for the Timbers, it was not enough. Despite multiple chances at a lead – having two goals in the first half waived for a foul and an offsides call, respectively – Portland could not make the necessary small adjustments.
Salt Lake, on the other hand, made the most of the few opportunities they had. Findley again proved key, scooping a low deflection off Ricketts and slotting it into the back of the net with ease.
The Timbers outshot RSL 18-7 for the match.
The Timbers’ inability to score early and lack of a central, skilled player took its toll, according to Meaders.
“We need a target guy – a ‘fox in the box,’ if you will,” Meaders said. “I think Ryan Johnson could be that guy, maybe, and Urrudi’s not quite there yet. We didn’t get the momentum. We score that first goal, it’s a whole different game. They let us have that first goal, totally different.”
Sophomore and Timbers fan Cameron Jones saw Portland’s efforts as almost an overcompensation for the first leg’s lack of defensive pressure.
“[In the first game] it seemed like they were just the better team – they were outplaying us,” Jones said. “The second game I just thought that Portland just was too urgent, and so they were sloppy with their play and sloppy with their control, and just didn’t seem to be playing like themselves at all.”
Despite falling short in the semifinals, Meaders acknowledged Portland’s improvement, and what it means for Sporting Kansas City’s matchup against Real Salt Lake tomorrow.
“At the very least, this is a team that went down fighting,” Meaders said. “They were really aggressive the whole game. We were right on their doorstep the whole game, but man, that RSL defense is so sick. Sporting is going to have a heck of a time with them.”