Real Salt Lake really should be missing Alvaro Saborio in the MLS Western Conference finals, considering his history against Portland and his offensive production all season.
You’d never have known that, judging by what unfolded Sunday night at Rio Tinto Stadium. The goals just kept coming, and RSL will take a 4-2 advantage into the second leg of the series Nov. 24 in Portland.
RSL played like a home team is supposed to approach a two-leg series, with a high-pressure, attacking style of soccer that delivered a three-goal flurry in about 13 minutes before and after halftime. Real got that production from an unlikely threesome: Chris Schuler, suddenly scoring like crazy; Robbie Findley, responding to a disappointing regular season in his return to the club; and rookie Devon Sandoval, starting in Saborio’s absence due to a hip flexor injury.
"It says that we’re a deep team," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "We have a ton of guys that have really contributed this season in meaningful matches and in meaningful ways."
Javier Morales contributed another goal, which at the time almost seemed sufficient to send Real to the MLS Cup final. But then Portland’s Frederic Piquionne scored in the final seconds of stoppage time, creating just enough intrigue to last during this two-week break in the playoffs, due to the FIFA international schedule.
Anything could happen in Portland, where the Timbers thrive. In a West semifinal series in 2011, Real went to Seattle after taking a 3-0 win at home and ended up having to hang onto a one-goal aggregate edge over the final 30 minutes.
The back-and-forth style of this matchup means "there’s always going to be opportunities when you play them — and the other way around," Findley said. "So we’ve just got to make sure when we have ours, we capitalize."
Let’s just say Real should be very glad that so many goals came from so many sources Sunday. That’s the hallmark of this team, with 17 players having produced goals in all competitions this season. Even in a no-stars culture, Kreis never had this much scoring diversity.
Saborio was hurt in the late stages of Thursday’s semifinal win over Los Angeles. So RSL is missing a player who’s scored seven goals against Portland in six career games.
RSL took awhile to respond to former Real midfielder Will Johnson’s blistering free kick that sailed past a diving Nick Rimando in the 14th minute. Real pulled even in the 35th minute via Schuler’s header of Morales’ corner kick — after they teamed to produce the winning goal in extra time Thursday.
And then Findley took advantage of a Portland defensive mistake, beating goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts to the ball and scoring easily in the 41st minute. Sandoval scored early in the second half with assists from Findley and Morales, then Morales added his goal that became more important when Portland finally answered.
Having appeared in all 14 of RSL’s playoff games over the previous five seasons, Johnson was traded to Portland during the series of moves made necessary by the MLS salary cap. "Let’s be honest, he was one of my favorites," Kreis said earlier this season.
Johnson is just one of the stories framing this matchup. There’s also the reunion of Morales and Portland’s Diego Valeri, who once played together in Argentina and have become two of the top offensive players in MLS. Trying to stop them are Rimando and Ricketts, considered the prime candidates for the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award.
To top it off, this is a battle between Rimando and Portland coach Caleb Porter, who have local beers named after them. So far, "Rimando’s Wit" is leading "Big Hearts and Brass Balls, A Caleb Porter."
But nobody can celebrate just yet.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.