FINAL THOUGHTS: I won't presume to read the Portland Timbers' minds, but if it had been me, I would have been demoralized by that defeat. Then again, maybe that weak mentality is why I never made it as a soccer player. That, a profound inability to control the ball, and a glacial turning radius.
The biggest difference between RSL's diamond midfield and the Sounders one the Timbers swatted aside so easily in the last round was the movement of the strikers. While the Sounders' strikers tried to force their way down the Timbers' jugular every time, Devon Sandoval and Robbie Findley sprinted into the space on the flanks left unguarded by Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington. The result was confusion, and a tough night for the slowing Portland center backs.
The late Frederic Piquionne goal might give the Timbers a lifeline in the second leg. Maybe the energy of the home supporters back in Portland will give them a boost, but for now, they are well beaten.
PREAMBLE: Real Salt Lake is not just the Timbers' bogey team, it's the club that was doing what Caleb Porter has Portland's finest doing before anyone else in the league. Real Salt Lake's championship-winning team in 2009 was a massive step forward for the league.
In the preceding year, Europe's top prizes at club and international level had been won by Barcelona and Spain respectively, using the same core of players: undersized for their positions but flawless in their technique: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol. Their domination was so unqualified that it seemed to herald a complete revolution in the very nature of the sport, a reorientation toward a possession-based, short passing philosophy relying more on technique and physicality.
Real Salt Lake engineered its own brand of Barcelona-style "tiki taka" soccer, with short-passing, combination play and a reliance on technique. The club also was and is well-run, with articles from the time period praising the front office's responsibility with team finances and eye for players with the right mentality for success. Real Salt Lake also drew crowds and was one of the first MLS clubs to seriously capture the imagination of its market.
Sound familiar? The Timbers are not the only club since 2009 to shift their approach toward something like the RSL model. Sporting Kansas City has also tried to move in that direction. But the Timbers are drawing the most plaudits this season. This game will very much be a test of whether the latest disciple can eclipse the master.
Portland Timbers: Ricketts; Jewsbury, Kah, Danso, Harrington; Chara, W.Johnson; Nagbe, Valeri, Wallace; R.Johnson
RSL subs: Attinella, Palmer, Grossman, Stephenson, Grabavoy, Garcia, Plata. Timbers subs: Kocic, Jean-Baptiste, Alhassan, Zemanski, Zizzo, Piquionne, Valencia
6:03: Up and running now. The telecaster's web app was slow-ish in making this available.
6:05: The Timbers beat RSL the first time the two clubs played, but that was their only success. The overall record for Portland in this match is won one, drawn three, lost five. So a bit of a bête noire then...
1 min: The Timbers have kicked off and are passing the ball around cautiously.
4 min: The first shot of the game comes from RSL's Sebastian Velasquez, but he's way out and loses his footing as he strikes it, sending it well, well wide. So far, that and a massively errant high ball from Kyle Beckerman are the match highlights so far, which is to say it has been slapstick.
6 min: An early indicator that the Timbers will be happy to leave with a draw tonight is what happens when the Timbers get a free kick in their own half. Rather than try a short ball to get the game restarted quickly, Pa Modou Kah smacks it long up the right wing, returning possession to RSL.
10 min: The opening 10 minutes has been hugely tentative so far. You know that scene in a romantic comedy where the two principal characters find themselves in uncomfortable proximity, deliberating on whether or not to throw caution to the wind and go in for the forbidden kiss? It's been like that. That is, a ever so slightly excruciating.
12 min: However, tentative impressions are that the Timbers are not entirely comfortable defending against RSL's front two. Robbie Findley has found himself sprinting behind Kah on plenty of occasions, and it's risky matching a 33-year-old center back against such a quick striker.
14 min: GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAALLL
Will Johnson deceives Nick Rimando from a free kick, shaping to hit it over the wall and then dropping it behind the US national team keeper instead.
19 min: RSL has had a lot of possession, but mostly not in dangerous areas. There haven't been too many of the dangerous balls we saw in the opening exchanges.
20 min: Donovan Ricketts mishits when he charges out to punch away a cross, but RSL couldn't capitalize.
22 min: You should have seen those sly Diego Valeri touches. He got the ball outside RSL box, killed it with his first touch, and then scooped it 30 yards behind him to Harrington. Not the most incisive of passes, but how did Valeri see him?
23 min: RSL gets a break against the Timbers defense. Devon Sandoval runs into acres of space gaping behind Harrington, but the stadium groans as Velasquez fails to look up and the attack ends in a harmless cross.
25 min: RSL fans have taken up the Mexican custom of yelling "culo" (literally: "asshole") when the opposing keeper takes a goal kick. With a thick Utah accent.
28 min: Kah gives a hint of the danger inherent in his matchup with Findley, lumbering into the RSL forward and giving away a free kick, which does not lead to a goal.
30 min: Rumor has it that former Timbers fullback Lovel Palmer is about to replace the injured RSL left-back Chris Wingert.
31 min: Will Johnson wins possession in the penalty area without much of anyone around him and does something you don't usually see from the Timbers: smacks it forward beyond the RSL backline, rather than looking to pass.
32 min: Darlington Nagbe and Jack Jewsbury box out RSL's Javier Morales after a good spell of RSL possession that included a brilliantly deceptive Kyle Beckerman pass.
35 min: GOOOOOOOOOOAL RSL 1-1 Timbers
Chris Schuler with the equalizer, nodding home a Morales corner after grappling his way over Futty Danso's head.
37 min: All of a sudden, RSL is charging in all directions like a stampeding herd of soft-shoed buffalo. Beckerman and Morales are pulling the TImbers in all directions.
39 min: Timbers fans across the country will have the powerful aftertaste of heart in their mouths right now. First one of the Timbers defenders accidentally smacks the ball toward his own bottom corner after a bit of post-corner pinball, and Diego Valeri has to save him by clearing off the goal line. Then Ricketts rockets through the air to make a last-ditch save from yet another RSL corner.
41 min: GOOOOOOOOOOOOALLLLL RSL 2-1 Timbers
Robbie Findley hunts down Danso, who receives the ball facing his own goal, takes a bad touch with his left foot, and slips the RSL forward in. A little swivel of Findley's hips hypnotizes Ricketts onto his backside, and the striker strokes home calmly.
43 min: The Timbers are a little bit sluggish at the moment. Will Johnson trips over not a heck of a lot trying to control the ball and then the ball flies long up the field.
45 min: Nagbe charges forward irresistibly and bewitches Nat Borchers into fouling him, but his touch finds Wallace anyway — but the Costa Rican's cross is cleared.
45 min +2: Luis Gil snakes up the wing and pings a dangerous cross in that Ricketts has to collect.
HALFTIME THOUGHTS: The Timbers haven't been their swaggering selves. It looks like part of a conscious decision to play a little less expansively. But Real Salt Lake has done a good job of finding space, particularly on the Timbers' left side. They're looking better on pretty much all levels, and Portland's difference makers, Nagbe and especially Valeri, haven't had much time on the ball.
48 min GOOOOALLL RSL 3-1 Timbers
Goal from Devon Sandoval off a quick break.
50 min: Sandoval ran behind Danso to stroke it home. Danso and Kah are not matching up well in the 2 v. 2 battle with Findley and Sandoval. Now Gil gets another chance, but the Timbers manage to run him down.
53 min: The Timbers are looking increasingly reliant on set plays. Will Johnson's corner kick is given far too much pomp and circumstance. And now Valeri looks like he's coming off.
54 min: Khalif Alhassan is on now. Velasquez runs into the penalty area. The Timbers swarm him, trying to brutalize him off the ball, but he wriggles and twists on the ball, and escapes about 7,000 challenges, only to have his final ball cleared.
55 min: Rodney Wallace tries a Ronaldinho flip-flap that completely bewilders three RSL defenders. Then, rather than move, he tries another. And then a third. And that is the one that bewitches even himself. He loses possession.
57 min: Jose Adolfo Valencia is now preparing to come on up front.
58 min: Darlington Nagbe jerks his hips this way, then that, bewitching a foot of space with each magic movement on the edge of the area, and sets Wallace free up the left, but his cross rolls out the far side.
60 min: Valencia tries a dummy, not realizing that the man behind him is Kyle Beckerman, who spins off another attack for RSL.
61 min: The Timbers have had most of the possession in the last five minutes, but RSL looks utterly content to let Portland pass the ball around in front of its defense.
62 min: Another free kick of much pomp and not little circumstance by Will Johnson that can't quite get into the box.
63 min: Kah runs behind the RSL defense chasing another Johnson delivery, but he can only flail a foot, then get called offside.
65 min: The Timbers are feinting and floating around, working the ball effectively across the width of the field, but with all the incision of a boxer with flawless footwork who never throws a punch. Joao Plata is on for Findley.
67 min: The game switches from sterile soft-touch to frantic tennis. The Timbers knock it long and it takes two or three flailing nods for the ball to fall back to the ground, and when it does, RSL has it.
68 min: Though the scoreline is ugly now, it feels as though the lift the Timbers would get from another goal might be massive. Not that they look like getting one any time soon.
69 min: Real Salt Lake works a triangle on the corner of the Timbers box, and Portland releases Valencia to take on the RSL defense himself. The fast break is a chess match: The collective brain of the RSL defense tempts the Colombian into giving the ball away.
73 min: Sandoval shows the heart of a champion to shield the ball from Kah and Harrington. The Timbers defenders' harrying doubles him over, but he manages to crawl away from them with the ball and win a free kick for his team.
74 min: Plata interrupts a lengthy spell of Timbers possession to dash up the left wing, but the play ends with a Will Johnson clearance.
75 min: Porter uses his final substitution to replace Wallace with Frederic Piquionne.
76 min: Kyle Beckerman is a beautiful player to watch when he has time to look up and pick out a pass. He has touched the ball about 365 times in this move, but it ends with Plata losing out to Jewsbury on the dribble.
78 min: Khalif Alhassan skitters through the RSL defense. His shot is emphatic, but it's also right at Nick Rimando.
81 min: There is some manufactured indecision from RSL over who should take a throw in, taking time off the clock.
82 min: GOOOOOOOOOOOOALLLLLL!!!! RSL 4-1 Timbers
Javier Morales nods home from the corner. The tie might as well be on ice for RSL.
83 min: The Timbers look intent on crossing to try and get another goal.
85 min: Timbers are lining up on the edge of the area every time they get the ball, but RSL looks to have it covered positionally.
86 min: Morales is off, Ned Gabavoy is on. The Timbers are slicing the ball forward at every chance now, but often finding themselves down blind alleys. Valencia finds himself facing his own net on the wing, for instance, and hems and haws until the ball goes out.
88 min: Sandoval feints his way around the Timbers midfield and springs another attack. His energy and improvisation have been a terror for the Timbers tonight.
89 min: Valencia and Gabavoy are sprawled across the turf after colliding headfirst. Valencia gets a yellow card for his trouble.
90 min + 1: The Timbers, with another free kick, look to find someone in the box. But Schuler hops into the air to scoop it out over the touchline.
90 min + 2: Johnson pressures Gabavoy into dribbling over his own goalline, but Rimando swings out of his goal to pluck it out of the air.
90 min + 3: Valencia lays the ball off to try and prompt a Timbers surge. But he lays it off to nobody for an RSL throw. His coming on has not been a success.
90 min + 4: GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAALLLLLLLLLL RSL 4-2 Timbers
Frederic Piquionne heads a right-wing cross over Rimando's head to give Portland a lifeline. And that's the game.