RSL defeats Portland Timbers 2-1 in MLS surprise

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake forward Corey Baird (10) and Portland Timbers midfielder Cristhian Paredes (22) take a header as Real Salt Lake hosts the Portland Timbers, Oct. 14, 2020.

Sandy • It was classic wacky Major League Soccer.

Portland was coming off of five wins in a row. In two of those wins, the Timbers had dumped six goals on the opposition, showing off a dangerous attack. They’re the winners of the most recent tournament, the bubble’s MLS Is Back affair. Meanwhile, RSL had struggled mightily recently, earning one draw and three losses over their last four.

So naturally, RSL looked the far better side, garnering the more dangerous chances, while Portland looked like a tired also-ran outfit. The result was a 2-1 win.

Go figure.

Both clubs' mentalities may have played a part in the end result. Portland sat some of their key players, including goalkeeper Steve Clark and valuable forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda; Eryk Williamson couldn’t play due to yellow-card accumulation.

RSL, on the other hand? It went all out. Thanks to its next match against the Colorado Rapids being postponed due to positive tests within the Rapids, the Claret and Cobalt’s next match isn’t until October 24 — giving it a break of nine days when it’s used to matches every three days during this congested season.

“We felt like our backs were against the wall. We know what position we’re in right now. We know what our form had been up until tonight,” Nick Besler, who started in the match, said. “We treated this one like a final tonight, where it was almost a must-win.”

Portland’s squad rotation proved costly early when young keeper Aljaz Ivacic made a communication mistake with his back line on a long-distance ball from RSL right back Aaron Herrera. Ivacic waited far too long to come out, then eventually ended up clearing the ball directly to RSL forward Douglas Martinez. Martinez put the ball away calmly for a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute.

RSL then doubled its advantage with a set piece from the training ground. After earning a corner in the 26th minute, Pablo Ruiz delivered a ball directly to an open Damir Kreilach, who volleyed it home sweetly from about 12 yards out. Kreilach was open thanks to a clever screen from center back Marcelo Silva, a win for RSL’s coaching staff.

“That’s 100% Matt Glaeser,” head coach Freddy Juarez said, crediting his set-piece coach, a new position he added to the staff this season. “That’s the one part of the game where, like American football or basketball, you can draw up a play. And if it’s run right, and the ball is there, you give yourself a chance.”

Portland did manage to make things close from a free kick in the 77th minute. Veteran Diego Valeri sent in a ball to perfect position for defender Bill Tuiloma to head home.

But overall, RSL’s defense did a terrific job in limiting Portland’s opportunities. Portland had just four shots on target, and the other three beyond the goal were from well outside the box or very tight angles. Clear-cut chances were in short supply for a Timbers attack that has been very dangerous. Given the numbers RSL pushed forward at times, Portland should have been able to counter-attack, but every time, one of RSL’s back line was there.

The result moved RSL into playoff position, but only temporarily. Vancouver’s 2-1 win over LAFC allowed it to keep pace with RSL — and Vancouver currently owns the tiebreak in that pairing. San Jose, too, looked poised to jump both clubs thanks to an early lead against the woeful L.A. Galaxy.

So yes, the result isn’t enough on its own to make RSL’s season. It will need to keep up better performances after the time off.

But this showed promise — promise RSL needed.

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