By TYLER GRAY
SANDY, Utah – The Portland Timbers scored the early goal, but it was Real Salt Lake that ended the night as the team in control.
The Timbers shocked the home side with an early Will Johnson free kick goal, but RSL rattled off four straight goals from four different players before securing the 4-2 first-leg victory at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The Timbers endured a rough night, but gave themselves hope for the second leg on Nov. 24th at Jeld-Wen Field when Freddy Piqiuonne scored a last-second header goal to make the final score 4-2, and cut RSL’s lead to two goals heading back to Portland.
Javier Morales was the star of the night for RSL, setting up two goals and scoring on a header to deliver the home team’s fourth goal of the night.
Portland’s first goal came against the run of play when RSL defender Chris Wingert committed a harsh tackled on Diego Valeri. A free kick was given about 28 yards out and Timbers midfielder Will Johnson stepped up to take it.
The former RSL man knuckled a delicious ball just over and through the wall that whizzed past RSL ‘keeper Nick Rimando and into the back of the net stunning an RSL side that looked like they were in control.
The goal seemed to wake the claret-and-cobalt up, however, as they came roaring back with a purpose.
RSL head coach Jason Kreis credited his team for how they responded to giving up an early goal to the visiting Timbers.
“Our response to that first goal was terrific,” Kreis said. “Our guys just got better and better as the game wore on and we got back to the things that we do well.”
RSL defender Chris Schuler’s headed goal off a Morales corner kick was the catalyst in the 35th minute, knotting things up at 1-1.
Schuler scored for the second game in a row when Morales curled in a corner kick and found him in the box. The resurgent centerback rose up and nodded the ball inside the far post and the score was level.
Findley grabbed the lead off an opportunistic run that forced Timbers defender, Mamadou Danso, into a hurried back pass. RSL’s leader in playoff goals made no mistake as he ran onto the ball and slotted the ball past Portland keeper, Donovan Ricketts, and into the back of the net.
RSL’s lead was never threatened again and they pounded in two more second-half goals courtesy of rookie Devon Sandoval, who notched his first MLS playoff goal, and veteran Morales.
Portland was able to pull one back at the death when defender Jack Jewsbury sent in a ball that found Frederic Piquionne who rose up and blasted his header to the far post where Nick Rimando could do nothing.
Piquionne’s goal shifted the narrative somewhat on a night where RSL could have easily notched a few more goals. RSL is well-acquainted with carrying multiple goal leads into another team’s stadium (see 2011 semifinal away leg at Seattle) but is determined to stay focused during the unusually long two-week layoff.
“They’re going to need to get that first goal, an early goal, but we have to be a mature team and we have to defend well,” RSL defender Nat Borchers said. “We have to be aggressive and that’s the way that we play even on the road. We’re going to have to push for that first goal and if we can get that I think that puts us in a good position to go.”
RSL also has to feel confident because they’ve been able to get contributions from all over the field. This team has scored six goals in its past two games with five different players providing a tally. They can approach the second leg of the conference finals with a lot of confidence that they’ll be able to get the job done.
One of the key pieces of this renewed RSL side, Sebastian Velasquez, stressed that this is only halftime.
“It puts us in a great position to go to Portland and hopefully be able to get a good result there,” Velasquez said. “We’ve done well in Portland. In saying that, we had a three goal advantage then we kind of let one down. I think it’s better to say that we have that little bit of that urgency that there’s still 90 minutes left. It’s only half time.”
The second leg of the Western Conference Finals will take place Sunday, November 24th at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon.
Here are the game highlights: