The road to MLS Cup runs through Portland.
That is not a sentence that I anticipated writing a week ago, and yet here we are. The Portland Timbers stand one game away from making their third appearance in an MLS Cup final. A final which, by virtue of being the team with the highest number of regular season points remaining, they would host at Providence Park.
The stakes and potential rewards are high — and the opponent is as tricky as they come. A showdown with Real Salt Lake marks the next hurdle the Timbers have to clear if they want to have a shot at lifting a trophy in 2021.
Here’s what to expect in the Western Conference final, and how the Timbers can punch their ticket.
Real Salt Lake in the 2021 playoffs
You’ll notice that, unlike the sections for Portland’s previous two foes, this section focuses on the postseason and eschews the regular season entirely. That is on purpose: This Real Salt Lake team has been a very different entity in the MLS Cup playoffs.
RSL were a decent mid-table side for most of the regular season, but went on a bit of a nosedive after their head coach Freddy Juarez left midseason to take an assistant coach role with the Seattle Sounders. By all accounts, RSL should have bottomed out and missed the playoffs. Instead, the interim head coach, Pablo Mastroeni, has galvanized his side just enough, and they miraculously qualified for the postseason with essentially the last kick on the last day of the regular season, becoming the seventh seed in the West.
In the postseason, RSL has become a chameleon, transforming into whatever they need to be to beat the foe in front of them.
Against Seattle in the first round, RSL infamously didn’t record a single shot during 120 minutes of game time. It didn’t matter: RSL placed a bet that Seattle’s subpar finishing would save them, and voila, that bet paid off. The match stayed scoreless, RSL took the game all the way to the coin flip that is penalties, and they squeaked by the Sounders.
In their next game against Sporting Kansas City, that defensive rigidity showed up again, this time coupled with some more offensive onus. They actually outshot SKC 11-5, and held Sporting to only two shots on target (one of which was a penalty kick; KC’s only goal of the game). They managed to turn on their offense, hitting on the break down the wings with particular effect in the second half. Just like the Timbers did in Commerce City, RSL nabbed a last-second winner on the road to earn their place in the Western Conference finals.
It has been a marked departure towards pragmatism for RSL since the playoffs began. After using some variation of a back three or five and an aggressive open style in the regular season, Real they have toggled to a primary 4-2-3-1 formation, setting up more conservatively in the playoffs.
Real Salt Lake has focused first to deny the middle of the field via numbers and by keeping compact banks of four. Then, they will look to build quickly through forward Rubio Rubin (who hails from Beaverton, OR) or jack-of-all-trades attacker Damir Kreilach. Substitutes Justin Meram, Bobby Wood, and Anderson Julio (who all combined in some manner to score RSL’s two goals last game) can also prove to be key attacking threats off the bench.
The extra wrinkle, which hasn’t been present in the postseason thus far, has been the presence of RSL’s star playmaker, Albert Rusnak. He has been out after testing positive for COVID before the first round, but signs are pointing towards him returning in the Western Conference final.
I know I’ve gone a bit long here, but I do want to emphasize how kind of out of nowhere RSL’s playoff run has come. They were viewed as a “just happy to be here” type team after Decision Day. Now, they are one win away from making the MLS Cup final.
If the above descriptions of RSL’s style of play sound familiar, it’s because RSL has indeed adopted Portland’s formula for success in the playoffs in 2021. And just as Portland has proved that they can be more successful than their regular season finish suggests, so too are Real Salt Lake just as dangerous of a foe.
Giovanni Savarese recognizes this, and he shared as much in his pregame comments to the media. “We’re not foolish [enough] to fall into thinking that this is a Cinderella story,” Savarese said with a slight grin when referring to Real Salt Lake’s season. “This is not a Cinderella story. This is a good team that is coming here with good players.”
Cinderella or not, RSL is a team that can very much spring their third upset in a row and advance past the Timbers. The aforementioned Kreilach and Rubin are the attacking focal points, but so too is the play of the fullbacks. Right back Aaron Herrera has been one of the most consistently dangerous fullbacks in the entire league, and he is RSL’s leading assist man, with 11 assists on the season. Look for him to bomb down the right side of then field and lob in dangerous balls for the like of Kreilach, Rubin, or Wood.
Throwing a curveball into that matchup is the anticipated return of Rusnak for RSL, and the suspension of defensive midfielder Everton Ruiz.
Rusnak is the most dynamic playmaker on RSL’s roster; he is tied for the highest expected assists per ninety minutes on the team, according to FBref. Should he start, he immediately provides an attacking threat that the Timbers midfield will need to keep track of.
Luiz’s absence, however, makes the midfield setup for RSL more dubious. Luiz, who is suspended for yellow card accumulation, has been one of Salt Lake’s starting and most consistent presences in the midfield. He totaled 64 total ball pressures over the last two playoff games, and is a big reason why RSL has stayed as defensively resolute as they have been.
Does RSL commit to trading defensive presence for attacking prowess by starting Rusnak? Or do they try to find a like-for-like switch and then introduce Rusnak as a substitute?
Those questions make it tricky to anticipate how RSL will set up. What we can be sure is that this RSL team has built their playoff run off of energy, momentum, and some old fashioned grit and spirit. To win, the Timbers will have to match that everywhere on the field and win their individual battles.
The defensive midfield will have to be sure they win the middle of the pitch. Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes have been very solid this postseason. For the Timbers to have the best chance to win this one, those performances will have to continue against whomever RSL has lined up.
Whether it is by absorbing and countering, or by dictating the play themselves (I could honestly see it going either way), Portland’s attackers will have to be ready to offset and unbalance RSL’s defense. Yimmi Chara, Felipe Mora, and whomever is the opposite side winger (probably Santiago Moreno) will need to be ready to capitalize on the moments they are given.
Movement from the attackers, like they showed in this goal scored against San Jose last month, is indicative of the type of play Portland will have to show in order to offset and break down the RSL defense:
Which of course brings us to the Sebastian Blanco-sized elephant in the room. The Timbers’ star attacker was, up until Thursday, thought to be out due to the injury he suffered in the last round. But then Savarese dropped the hint that Blanco might somehow miraculously return in time to play a role on Saturday.
Oregon’s own national broadcaster then dropped this bit of breaking news, saying that Seba has somehow battled all the way back to be available for Saturday:
A rare bit of news from me but reporting live from Timbers practice in Beaverton: Sebastian Blanco has been upgraded from Questionable to Probable for tomorrow's Western Conference Final (6:30pm ET on FS1) with his hamstring injury suffered vs Colorado last week #MLSCupPlayoffs— John Strong (@JohnStrong) December 3, 2021
It originally looked like it was going to be “next man up” for the Timbers on Saturday. But if the team deems Blanco is healthy, and Blanco wants to start ... then Blanco starts.
I would of course temper expectations and approach any kind of game-breaking influence Blanco will have with a healthy dose of skepticism, but the fact that we are even talking about Seba being available to play is an incredible sign. And it’s one that strongly suggests that Blanco will have something to say in matters before it’s all said and done.
Saturday really could wind up being a wildcard of a game. Should Portland show up their best, they give RSL a lot to deal with, even without their star attackers. Should RSL come out the sharper of the two sides, however, Portland will have their hands full from the jump against the road specialists of the playoffs.
So with all that being said ... I tempt the soccer gods once again to chance a prediction:
Timbers lineup: Steve Clark; Josecarlos Van Rankin, Larrys Mabiala, Dario Zuparic, Claudio Bravo; Cristhian Paredes, Diego Chara; Yimmi Chara, Sebastian Blanco, Santiago Moreno, Felipe Mora
Score Prediction: Timbers 3 - 2 Real Salt Lake
Scorers: Mora, Rusnak, Y. Chara, Kreilach, Valeri (a 90th minute wondergoal)
The magic is still real, folks. I do not anticipate Saturday to be boring — it’s going to be a back-and-forth affair. Both teams are dangerous. They will trade goals, and ultimately it will come down to which squad’s top-end talent steps up.
In that fight, I think the Timbers will come out on top. Even without Asprilla and with Blanco being potentially limited, Portland has one too many difference makers for RSL to handle. In this case, that difference is one more dash of magic from El Maestro himself, to set up his storybook ending.