It was mere minutes after Frederic Piquionne’s bullet header with the last touch of Portland’s first leg shellacking at the hands of Real Salt Lake that the Timbers’ wounds healed, or were ignored.
At 4-2 down, Portland is all but out of the MLS Cup Playoffs after a run that made the 2013 Timbers one of MLS’ best ever success stories. Whatever happens in the second leg, this season has been a blast beyond the wildest dreams of the most ardent supporters. The Timbers’ playoff run in year one of the Caleb Porter era was always viewed as icing.
Now the Timbers are staring the end in the face. It was abrupt, how quickly it unraveled at the Rio Tinto Stadium on Sunday night, just a half-hour stretch that crashed a season-long party that showed no signs of slowing down.
But with Piquionne’s goal, and the vast difference – both practically and physiologically – from a three goal deficit to a two-goal margin, the belief flooded back into the Timbers.
The shackles are off. The mood is positive. The belief is real.
One last time in 2013, Portland is coming home to Jeld-Wen Field. They’re coming home with a mountain to climb but with a strong wind at their back. Maybe Portland shouldn’t believe that they can beat the team they haven’t beaten all year, the team that just dismantled them, by three goals, but the Timbers in 2013 are silly that way.
Just when you think the magic is running out, the moments just keep getting better and better.
So the Timbers think they can do this thing when the playoffs resume after the FIFA International Break. They think they can win by two goals or more on November 24th, and get to MLS Cup 2013.
When you tell yourself a lie long enough, you eventually start believing your own lie. Portland is going to need to have a lot more than a good game to turn this tie around. A good game won’t guarantee a two-goal victory. The Timbers have played two good games against Real Salt Lake at home this season, and they’ve drawn both times.
No, the grizzly truth is that if Real Salt Lake play a solid game themselves, Portland doesn’t have a shot.
RSL hold the keys to the Cadillac. If they come out and play their balanced game, hit that "sweet-spot", as Caleb Porter described it, in playing with a lead in a second leg, the Timbers are done.
At this point, they need a little luck, and they need to hope Salt Lake doesn’t play as well as they did on Sunday. Because if that’s the case, Portland may lose more than the tie, they may lose game.
RSL plays Portland’s game, and they play it with a little more refinement and knowledge than the Timbers do. This is a product of Jason Kreis being in Salt Lake fore seven years, and this being Caleb Porter’s first year in Portland.
What Portland must do is take Salt Lake out of their game. When RSL are comfortable, they have possession, they have very solid shape, and they have overall poise.
I don’t think Kreis will take RSL out of their game on his own by ordering his team to bunker in or changing to a more defensive formation. What RSL did in leg one worked to well to change anything.
So it’s up to the Timbers.
They must score first. If they don’t, it’s over.
Portland will need to come out of the tunnel with ferocious energy. The crowd will provide a huge boost, and the Timbers need to capitalize with early pressure and preferably a goal.
This is how Portland played against Seattle in the second leg, and the Sounders were done 30 minutes into the game.
The Timbers need to the ball, keep the crowd in the game, and keep the pressure on. If Portland scores the first goal, all bets are off. If Portland scores the first goal, it will all be a frenzy – the rest of the game, the atmosphere, the emotions.
That’s how you take RSL out of their game. You take a veteran, confident team and you make them a little nervous, and that’s where mistakes happen.
Salt Lake doesn’t have a terrific defense. Portland scored three goals against them in a game at Jeld-Wen earlier this year, and two goals in the first leg.
To combat Real’s dominating central midfield, the Timbers need to pack the middle with Chara, Johnson, and possibly Nagbe, and get the ball wide. Piquionne should start, he’s Portland’s most skilled player and goal-scorer up top.
There is a chance that November 24th is the best night in Timbers history. If it appears things are headed that way, Portland will be tough to stop.
This team loves playing at home, and loves going for the jugular. They can put up a big number, but the biggest key is getting Diego Valeri involved.
The Argentine maestro was all but silent in the first leg while fighting injury and the two week break should be a big boost for him. He pulled the strings when the Timbers put up three on Salt Lake, and he’ll need to again in this upcoming game.
Of course, Portland will need to tighten things up at the back. But the defense is ready and eager to shape up after leg one.
The message from the Timbers Army remains the same: We believe in you. This magic is real.
On the 24th, we’ll find out just how real it is.