SANDY, Utah — Real Salt Lake locked up a place in the MLS postseason for the fifth straight year as Fabián Espíndola and Javier Morales each ended lengthy scoring droughts in a 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Without their leading scorer, injured forward Álvaro Saborío, RSL found the back of the net on two first-half set pieces, capitalizing on a strong performance in the opening stanza. The home team held possession for long stretches and had the better of the attack, so it came as little surprise to see the Claret-and-Cobalt go ahead early.
In the 13th minute, Espíndola and Morales put on a clinic to earn a free kick just outside the area. They passed their way back and forth from about 40 yards out until Morales got to the edge of the box, where he was taken down by Portland defender Steven Smith.
RSL got a little cheeky on the free kick from the right side. Kyle Beckerman first made a run over the ball before Morales moved toward it, feigning an attempt on goal. Instead, the playmaker used a little back-heel to feed Espíndola, who ran onto it and struck a left-footed rocket into the bottom right corner of the net. Portland goalkeeper Joe Bendik had no chance as the ball found a hole through the five-man wall which disintegrated with the Morales run-and-touch.
The 14th-minute goal was Espíndola's seventh of the year and first since June 16, when he netted two against Chivas USA.
Portland nearly got one back just eight minutes later. Rodney Wallace thought he had found the net when he drilled a header off a corner kick from just seven yards out, but the cat-like reflexes of RSL 'keeper Nick Rimando blocked the ball and deflected it up in the air, allowing RSL's Will Johnson to clear it off the line.
RSL took advantage and extended their lead in the 36th minute on a free kick from just outside the Portland penalty area. Morales once again drew the foul, about five yards outside the box on the left side. This time, however, Morales did it all himself, stroking a beautiful, bending ball over the wall and to the top-left corner of the net. It was his first goal since a nearly identical free-kick goal against San Jose on June 23.
RSL squandered a couple of prime scoring chances in the first 15 minutes of the second half that could have put the game away, allowing Portland to make things interesting for the final half-hour.
Timbers' winger Sal Zizzo sent a ball in from 35 yards out on the right side and second-half substitute Bright Dike rose up high in the air to head home to cut the lead in half at 2-1 at the 61st minute.
OPTA Chalkboard: Timbers tactics change game in 2nd half
Espíndola should have locked up the result in the 64th minute on an easy one-on-one, but again Bendik came up huge as he cut down the angle and got a foot on the shot to deflect it wide right.
Portland tried to press for the equalizer, and they nearly got it in the 82nd minute on a free kick from Franck Songo'o, but Rimando leapt high to knock it away.
The visitors narrowly missed drawing even again in the 85th minute as Dike again got his head on the ball, but the crossbar was unkind as the ball deflected off the top of the woodwork and back out.
RSL now face a tough three-game road swing beginning with a match at Chivas USA on Saturday, Sept. 29 (10:30 p.m. ET). They will be without Jamison Olave, who will be suspended for yellow-card accumulation.
Portland, now winless in four and still winless on the road this season (0-11-4), host D.C. United on Sept. 29 (10:30 p.m. ET).
MLSsoccer.com Men of the Match
|Rank||Player||What We Saw|
|1||Javier Morales (RSL)||A match reminiscent of the Javi of old: world-class touches, creative combinations and a sensational free kick goal.|
|2||Fabian Espindola (RSL)||With injured top scorer Alvaro Saborio looking on from the stands, RSL needed the Argentine to rediscover his scoring touch and he came through. Could have had a hat trick.|
|3||Joe Bendik (POR)||Sal Zizzo and Bright Dike were shining lights for the Timbers but it was the back-up 'keeper that kept them in it with some key saves. Little he could have done on the two free kicks.|