SANDY, Utah — In five matches against Real Salt Lake – all within a span of three months – the Portland Timbers have not won a match.
And they’ve lost three times – including the latest and most important, a 4-2 defeat Sunday at Rio Tinto Stadium in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship.
Now the Timbers get two weeks to not only try to figure out how to beat RSL on Nov. 24 at JELD-WEN Field, but beat them by at least three goals to advance to the MLS Cup on aggregate.
A tall task, to be sure, but there are some things going Portland’s way, head coach Caleb Porter said, including the break itself – always a topic for conversation as the playoffs collide with a span of international play.
“Well, it’s good because I think we need to get back to the training ground and improve in some areas,” Porter told reporters following the defeat in Utah.
How teams respond to such a long break in the middle of a two-game playoff series is always up for question. Will they lose their edge? Will they become despondent at the challenge they’ll be continually reminded of throughout the break? Or will they take advantage of the rest after three games in 10 days and improve in the next game?
The Timbers say that in their camp, it will be the latter.
“I don’t think we’re under pressure,” Timbers defender Mamadou “Futty” Danso said. “We know we can score more than three goals at home. We just need to go home and take care of business.”
Frederic Piquionne's stoppage-time header on Sunday extended Portland a lifeline for the next leg and injected some much-needed confidence into a group that, for whatever reason, can’t seem to get over the hump against RSL.
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“They’re over it already,” Porter said. “They can’t wait until the next game. I think that last goal was big, really big, because I think it gave us a little bit of life knowing that now we only need two goals and that, for our team, meant a lot. We know we are capable of that. And for their team, to some extent, probably that rattles them a little bit and gets them thinking.”
There are also some practical issues that Porter is glad he has two weeks to address. Two of RSL’s goals came on set pieces, and Porter said that will be an area of emphasis when they return to training on Wednesday. The Timbers gave up another goal on a counterattack as they pushed forward trailing 2-1 early in the second half, which surely is a concern – as they will have to be on their front foot all night in the second leg.
Health-wise, it gives their playmaker Diego Valeri a chance to rest the adductor strain he’s been dealing with since September. Valeri was mostly ineffective against RSL and came off in the 53rd minute.
“We’re not going to dwell on the negatives,” Porter said. “At the end of the day, we know what we’re capable of doing and, again, we’re at home.”
Dan Itel covers the Timber for MLSsoccer.com.