Timbers-Real Salt Lake Preview
The Portland Timbers have beaten every team in Major League Soccer's Western Conference this season except one: Real Salt Lake.
The two teams will meet Sunday in the first of the two-leg goal-aggregate conference final in Salt Lake. The series, which will be interrupted by international play, concludes on Nov. 24 at Portland's Jeld-Wen Field.
''The four games that we played with them this season? That goes out the window,'' said Timbers midfielder Will Johnson.
The Timbers played to draws against Real Salt Lake in both of their Portland meetings this season. At Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake, RSL won both matches, including a victory in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals.
Their last meeting was a defensive 0-0 draw at Jeld-Wen on Oct. 19. The Timbers did not give up a shot on goal.
''For me, the record in the playoffs is even,'' Johnson said. ''We've never played them in the playoffs so I think it's a totally different game. Whatever the regular-season statistics are, they are what they are, but this is the playoffs now so it's a brand new slate.''
The Timbers finished the regular season ranked first in the Western Conference, earning home-field in their first-ever playoff appearance since joining Major League Soccer in 2011.
The Timbers advanced to the conference final by defeating the Cascadia rival Seattle Sounders 3-2 on Thursday night, claiming the semifinal series 5-3 on aggregate. The victory extended Portland's winning streak at Jeld-Wen to 16 games. The Timbers went 11-1-5 at home in the regular season with their lone loss on March 9 to Montreal. They had an MLS record 11 shutouts at home this season.
''We like to be an aggressive team, as does Portland,'' RSL coach Jason Kreis said. ''So I think that if we can get out there and put our best foot forward in the first 90 minutes, we can put ourselves in a very good place.''
Salt Lake advanced to the Western Conference finals with a 2-0 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy on Thursday night. RSL won the series 2-1 on aggregate, reaching a conference final for the third time in five years and ending the Galaxy's bid for a third consecutive MLS Cup.
Salt Lake improved to 2-2-2 in second-leg matches in the MLS playoffs. RSL's previous second leg win came against Columbus in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals.
RSL went on to win the MLS Cup that season. Overall, the team has been to the playoffs for the past five seasons.
''I think it matters some,'' Kreis said about playoff experience. ''Do I think it's going to be a deciding factor in this series? Absolutely not.''
Both teams faced the tough three-game turnaround between the semis and the final, then they'll have to wait to play the second match in Portland.
''It is what it is. You can't do anything about it,'' Timbers coach Caleb Porter said. ''So we're not going to talk about it. We're not going to worry about it. We're going to be fresh. We're going to be flying. We'll be turned around, no problem. Real Salt Lake's in the same situation.''
The Houston Dynamo and Sporting KC play in the Eastern Conference final, with the opening game in Houston on Saturday. The second leg is set for Nov. 23 in Kansas City.
The conference winners will play in the MLS Cup on Dec. 7. The finalist with the best regular season record will host.