Portland, Ore. • The whistle blew, but no one knew quite what to do. But as a few seconds passed by, after center official Mark Geiger put the final stake through the hearts of a roaring JELD-WEN Field, it was, at last, assured.
Real Salt Lake would be playing for another jewel for its crown.
The players morphed into one blob of jubilation, jumping up and down, cementing their spot as Western Conference champions after defeating rival and No. 1-seeded Portland Timbers 1-0 Sunday night in downtown Portland. The Timber fans roared chants as the home side took a lap around the stadium thanking their supporters for a season to remember. Conversely, once the circle broke, RSL took for the corner of JELD-WEN painted with fans claret-and-cobalt and danced.
Ninety minutes after Timbers Army released a sign reading "Belief Beyond Reason," RSL, a team that faced several questions heading into this season, continued its belief in topping the Timbers 5-2 on goal aggregate in the Western Conference final.
"We always believed it," said midfielder Javier Morales. "I believe in this team, I believe in this club, I believe in my coach."
It was validated in its 29th-minute goal by forward Robbie Findley when the RSL striker bounced on a loose ball spilt to the middle of the box by Portland goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts following an outside shot by Luis Gil. Findley pounced, scoring a goal for the second-consecutive game, pitting the Timbers with a near-impossible deficit of suddenly needing four goals to advance to MLS Cup.
"We brought Robbie Findley back because he's capable of scoring the goal in the biggest moments," Kreis said.
On its heels somewhat a bit for the first 20 minutes of the match, RSL began to dictate flow and the pace of the match after Findley's goal momentarily silenced JELD-WEN Field. From there, Portland, a team that had dominated most MLS clubs at home this season, chipped away at RSL, looking for the final pass or deflection or lucky break.
It never came.
"When we got that third goal and went into halftime up, it took a lot of air out of them," said captain Kyle Beckerman.
Try as they might, the Timbers couldn't contain a poised RSL team led by its four midfielders who tracked back defensively when needed and a back line that was more than up to the task of corralling Portland.
"I just think we play to our strengths really well," Kreis said. "We know our weaknesses, and we have tactically smart-enough players to take advantage of the opponent's weaknesses as well."
For the sixth time this season, RSL walked off the pitch with a result against the West's top team. This time, the walk was more of a sprint, which eventually turned into the players and coaches and owner Dell Loy Hansen bouncing up and down on the stage, waiting for a chance to raise their first trophy of the season.
Far reach from a the final stretch of the year when Kreis was waiting to see if his side would have time to figure it out.
"Truth be known, they have outlived and outlasted any expectations I've had for them," he said, "and they've now found their form and their self-identity at the exact right time, because we'd gone through a month leading up to the playoffs where really I was looking out there going, 'I'm not sure who these guy are. Seems they've forgotten.' But it's more than just belief Â it's work."
A concoction that has led RSL back to the MLS Cup where it will face East champion Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, Dec. 7, at Sporting Park.
"Here we are," said Ned Grabavoy. "We've got another chance. I guess we have a lot of old guys, a lot of people are going to say, but we're going back for one more."
Storylines Winning the West
R Forward Robbie Findley scores the lone goal of the match in the 29th minute.
• RSL is the first visiting team to win at JELD-WEN Field since Montreal on March 9.
• The MLS Cup will be played on Saturday, Dec. 7, at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., where RSL will take on Sporting KC.