Portland, Ore. • The heroes were Jonny Steele, a player casual fans had likely never heard of, and the omnipresent Kyle Beckerman.
But Saturday’s stunning 3-2 victory over Portland, which national media were calling the “game of the year” minutes after it ended, was significant in a larger sense for Real Salt Lake (3-1) due to the return and impact of a trio of missed players.
Nat Borchers, Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio all returned from injury at their own paces, but each man made his first start of the season Saturday at Jeld-Wen Field.
Most notable was Saborio, who scored on a penalty kick in the 39th minute. RSL is 21-3-5 in games when Saborio has scored since he joined the team in early 2010.
“It’s great [to have them back],” Beckerman said. “I think it gave us a big boost mentally. And the way Sabo fights up there, he’s just a pain in the neck all game long.”
But the RSL that pulled off the win looked much more like the team that has been near the top of the MLS for years than the one that topped Los Angeles early this season and dropped a game against Chivas last weekend at home.
“I know that they’ve been chomping at the bit to get back in there,” coach Jason Kreis said. “So I’m pleased that they got out there. I’m pleased they all stayed healthy through the 90 minutes, they all lasted 90 minutes and they all looked pretty sharp. So that’s a real positive sign.”
The question throughout the week was how Kreis would integrate his stars, including midfielder Will Johnson, who came on in the 58th minute, back into the lineup with three games in seven days. Saborio and Morales both came on at halftime or in the second half of RSL’s first three games, while Borchers was rehabbing in a pair of reserve games.
Borchers’ return meant that he was familiarly teamed with Jamison Olave. The pair is considered one of the best tandems in the league and, even after a pair of goals by Portland’s Darlington Nagbe, has allowed just 82 goals in 89 matches. RSL is 41-21-27 when they start together.
That Kreis started his three key players at Portland may have spoken to the urgency for the team to earn points after the unexpected 1-0 defeat to Chivas a week earlier at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
In just their second year in the MLS, the Timbers are generally considered to own the best home-field advantage. RSL lost at Jeld-Wen Field last spring, and on Saturday beat Portland for the first time.
“The fans are unbelievable here, and that’s the way soccer should be,” Steele said. “It’s very European.”
Montreal at Salt Lake
P Wednesday, 7 p.m., CW30