Kragthorpe: RSL's poise rises above Portland's noise
The chanting and singing never ceased and hardly anyone left until the final whistle.
Yet nothing about the famously revved-up atmosphere of JELD-WEN Field fazed Real Salt Lake, nor did anything that happened on the turf Sunday night against Portland.
Seriously, was it supposed to be this easy?
In the two-leg aggregate format of Major League Soccer's Western Conference final, RSL dominated the team with the West's best regular-season record. Real advanced with a 5-2 overall victory.
And anyone would have to say this 1-0 road win via Robbie Findley's 29th-minute goal was as impressive in its own way as RSL's 4-2 decision two weeks ago at Rio Tinto Stadium.
In some respects, the franchise started over this season. But in this moment, RSL's veteran players asserted themselves again. Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy were right there in the middle of it all Sunday, just when their stability was needed.
Those guys "have been through so many critical matches in really difficult places," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "They've been through every scenario possible, and they handled it well."
This was an impressive effort by RSL, playing without injured starters Alvaro Saborio and Chris Wingert. Afterward, the Timbers Army tried to drown out the trophy presentation, but nobody could stop RSL's players from dancing on the podium in celebration of the team's return to the MLS Cup final for the first time since winning the 2009 championship. Sporting Kansas City will host RSL in the title game Dec. 7.
The weather may be frightful in the Midwest, but the atmosphere can't be as intimidating as Portland.
Real clearly is the one team in Major League Soccer that can consistently thrive in this environment, having earned two regular-season ties and a postseason victory. All it took for RSL to succeed this time was another nice coaching job by Kreis and a poised performance from everybody involved, from the front line to Rimando in goal.
Reviewing a season that began with so much uncertainty, Beckerman said, "We had chances where we had to come together or just falter, and we came together. And here we are."
Obviously, RSL entered this second leg with some comfort. Yet Portland's stoppage-time goal Nov. 10 created just enough hope for the Timbers, coming home to the frenzied environment of Jeld-Wen Field, where they're known for aggressive, high-scoring soccer.
This environment can be overwhelming to visitors, with fans packing the huge grandstand behind the goal in the historic, remodeled baseball park in downtown Portland. RSL withstood all of it, in a venue where the Timbers had not lost a game since early March.
Some degree of worry accompanied this visit, even with RSL's two-goal advantage coming into Sunday. That proved valid in the first 25 minutes, when Portland's attacking "certainly had me nervous for long stretches," Kreis said.
The first goal is always critical. In this case, it was "ten times as important," Kreis said. "Now, they get a little desperate, some heads are hanging and there's some frustration involved."
RSL's goal came after Luis Gil fired a shot that forced Portland goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts to make a diving save. The ball bounced right to Findley, who drilled it into a corner of the net. If you're looking for a sign, the sequence resembled the goal that Findley scored against Ricketts, then with Los Angeles, in the 2009 MLS Cup final.
The three-goal advantage briefly evoked memories of 2011, when RSL beat Seattle 3-0 in the first leg in Sandy and allowed two goals early in the second half of the second leg. Real had to hang on for about 30 minutes that night to emerge from the West semifinals.
Conversely, the Timbers faded in Sunday's second half. RSL should get most of the credit for that. The trophy Beckerman carried into the locker room was much deserved, and there just might be a bigger one to come.