This was a quasi no-lose game for the Portland Timbers. If the Timbers lost, it would be a fairly minor moment in Caleb Porter's turnaround of the club; if they won, it would set up the biggest game in PTFC history. Hosting a cup final would have been fantastic. But it's not going to happen, and all of the sudden, the coin-toss the Portland - Real Salt Lake winner won to host the final matters not. Thinking this game was a no-lose situation was naive. No game is no-lose: In reality, all you have to do to be defeated is score less goals than the opposition. And when that happens, it hurts - especially with the US Open Cup is on the line.
Portland didn't exactly come into Rio Tinto Stadium Wednesday night experiencing their best run of 2013 form, in fact, the month of July was the Timbers' worst of the season. That, coupled with the quality of the opponent and Portland's win percentage on the road, hovering just under 25%, made the Timbers clear underdogs for the first time this season.
With the other semifinal matchup consisting of Chicago and DC United, meek teams in the meek Eastern Conference, the Portland - Salt Lake semi was the de-facto final. The stakes were high. Both teams were all in, Caleb Porter rushed a sorely-missed Diego Chara back into the team, while his opposite number Jason Kreis gambled on the fitness of midfield maestro Javier Morales.
The matchup provided a chance to pit the two hottest young American coaches against each other. Porter and Kreis, both of midwestern stock, experienced huge success at a young age, both have progressive tactics and a clear presence with players and the media, and both have the potential to manage the USA national team down the road.
Porter, clearly frustrated with the defensive tactics of teams blunting the Timbers passing game, was eagerly anticipating locking horns with RSL, who also preferred a total football approach. Unfortunately for Porter, the Timbers had to deal with Salt Lake's mean-streak. This was never going to be a walk in the park for Portland.
Real has played in an MLS Cup Final, a CONCACAF Champions League Final, and numerous playoff games in the last five years. The Timbers have played in no playoff games, no Champions League games, and no games of such consequence as the game they contested Wednesday. Real Salt Lake, especially their big players, showcased big-game chops the Timbers haven't developed yet.
Nick Rimando, for instance, reminded Timbers fans that there are other goalkeepers in MLS besides Donovan Ricketts. No offense to the big man, but Rimando was outstanding, his save on Will Johnson one of the best of the season. Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio, the combination on Salt Lake's first goal, the team's two marquee veterans, were very good. RSL mixed size and speed, youth and age, carrot and stick with seamless reliability. They were far and away the better team.
Portland were slow. Outside of Diego Valeri, the Timbers were stagnant and boring, especially in the final third. At the beginning of the year, all 10 Portland field-players popped and crackled with passing moves and snappy attacks. Now, the number of players still playing fast and creatively have dwindled, and while Portland's possession and shots numbers looked good on paper, they never grabbed the game by the horns and made a move to win it.
Maybe it's mid-season malaise. But Portland needs to shake it off. It was the same performance Portland lost with in San Jose and drew with in Vancouver the last two weekends. This time, it cost the Timbers something huge.
There are weak-points that need to be addressed. Pa Kah isn't the guy to pair with Andrew Jean-Baptsite. He's nowhere near Mikael Silvestre or Futty, and his lax marking and constant chirping are becoming commonplace. The outside backs, including Michael Harrington, are not dynamic enough. Expect to see more Alvis Powell going forward. I like Ryan Johnson, but he needs to be quicker with the ball and link up with players around him better. And if Rodney Wallace can't get back on track, let's see two forwards or Kalif Alhassan.
Caleb Porter plays the disappointed coach well. He's adamant that every time Portland step on the field, they expect to win. But the Timbers, especially on the road, aren't that good right now. So what is the real goal for the rest of this MLS season? Merritt Paulson isn't saying this time around. Is it to make a deep playoff run? It should be. The Timbers are good enough. But they need to snap out of it before they slide down the standings of an insanely competitive and tight Western Conference.
The US Open Cup dream ended Wednesday night. It was a respectable defeat, on paper. 2-1, Valeri snatched a goal back in stoppage time before two goals in each half from the hosts. But the loss smacked of larger problems in the Portland camp. Real Salt Lake plays DC United on October 1st for the US Open Cup title. That's a big loss for the Timbers.