MLS is undergoing something of a revolution, one of tactics and technique. The Portland Timbers are considered to be at the vanguard (with good reason) given their one-season transformation from "hoof and hope!" to thoughtful pressure and possession. And they've been annihilating teams with that combo for months.
But we shouldn't have forgotten who wrote the book – for this generation, anyway – on how to be a consistent winner in MLS while playing the beautiful game.
Hats off to Real Salt Lake on their 4-2 win, which was comprehensive, emphatic and unexpected. Portland have now lost three of five to RSL across all competitions this season; against everyone else, they've lost four of 35.
Here's how Jason Kreis keeps weaving his magic:
1. Javier Morales in too much time and space
Morales usually glides into the left channel and does his work from there. On this night, he'd drift all the way to the touchline and dare Portland's midfielders to follow him.
Sometimes they would; other times they wouldn't. That means that Morales would often be able to receive, turn, and pick a pass. Like this:
Diego Chara, of all people, is too slow to close Morales down, and leaves his defense on an island.
Here's the thing, kids: Players like Morales should not be referred to as "central attacking midfielders." Stop using that term, because it's inaccurate – they don't tend to work in the center. There's no room there anymore, so they drift to the sidelines, or between the lines, or play deep.
Morales is a "playmaker," or a "chance creator." And for a guy who's had a lot of great nights, this was one of his best:
Go where the space is, then move forward. Morales put in the kind of performance that should be put on film, then taken to soccer camps and shown to any coach who gives a damn about playing the game the right way.
But he didn't do it alone.
2. RSL's movement opens Portland's defense
You can see in the above GIF just how stranded Pa Modou Kah is. He bears most of the blame – there's no reason for him to be so high on this play, because Morales is not going to outrun Chara.
This wasn't unusual. RSL have buzzed back into a groove over the last two-and-a-half games, and it's come from off-the-ball movement. It starts with the forwards:
Devon Sandoval has a little bit of what Herculez Gomez says is his best attacking trait... Always stay in motion.— Matthew T (@shinguardian) November 11, 2013
That second tweet came minutes before Sandoval made it 9 goals.
Yes, I'm part of the "Alvaro Saborio might be a better player, but RSL play better with Sandoval out there" crowd and have been for some time. RSL's midfielders are about three times as likely to score a goal when playing with Sandoval than they are when playing with Saborio.
And yeah, that's the thing: Got to get the midfielders involved. And they have to do the job of involving themselves.
To that end, look at this play:
Sebastian Velasquez makes one run that pins Chara back for just a second. Then he angles it and makes another that forces Will Johnson to take a half step to the right. And that's the opening Morales uses to find Beltran on the overlap.
Velasquez's development – his ownership of responsibility within Kreis's scheme – is one of the two big stories of this playoff run for the Claret-and-Cobalt (the other being the play of Chris Schuler, which I'll write about this week).
3. No reason to cheat on set pieces
Two best goalkeepers in the league squared off tonight, and neither covered himself with glory.
Does Will Johnson deserve a ton of credit for hitting this hard and on target? Of course. But Nick Rimando should make this save 99 times out of 100:
The idea of the wall is to bend the percentages in your favor. You know that it has to be a spectacular strike to get over that wall and under the crossbar. And you know that if the shooter aims left (goalkeeper's right), it has to be a Beckham-esque miracle to beat you.
This, by Rimando, was the goalkeeper's version of the Panenka. He cheats, and if it works, he looks like a hero. If it doesn't, he just looks bad.
With only 13 regular season direct free kick goals, no #MLS goalkeeper should be cheating.— Devin Pleuler (@devinpleuler) November 11, 2013
Rimando, who I voted for as the 2013 Goalkeeper of the Year, makes only about one of these blunders a year. This one has helped leave the door open just a crack for Portland in leg two.
Bonus thought: Tired, tired Timbers
It's conceivable that the emotional win over the Sounders took more out of Portland than everyone had thought, because – until the very end when Frederic Piquionne found what could be a huge goal – they looked completely gassed.
Here RSL have six men back, and Jose Valencia is the only Portland player in the frame:
It was RSL who were supposed to be running on empty after playing 120 tough minutes against LA in midweek. Portland were supposed to be flying high after stuffing the Sounders.
They'll need to rediscover their energy for the second leg, and have two weeks to come up with a game plan for how to contain Morales in the process.
If they don't, Rose City will turn a slightly different shade of red.