PORTLAND, Ore. — Down 4-2 heading into the second leg of the Western Conference Championship, you'd think all the pressure would be on the Portland Timbers.
But that's not the way Real Salt Lake players sound when they talk about Sunday's second leg, which will decide which team advances to the MLS Cup final at Kansas City.
“We have the lead, so the pressure is on us to hang onto it,” RSL midfielder Nat Borchers told MLSsoccer.com on Saturday at JELD-WEN Field. “It makes it difficult when you go up two goals in a series and they you have to go away and defend the lead.”
RSL players have resisted the suggestion that their playoff experience (six consecutive seasons in the postseason) provides them with a big advantage over the Timbers, who are in the playoffs for the first time. But, at the same time, Salt Lake have been here before.
The veterans on this team were there in March 2011, when RSL took a 2-0 lead over Saprissa in the home leg of a CONCACAF Champions League series and then — in front of a large and aggressive Costa Rican crowd — lost 2-1 on the road but won the series 3-2 on aggregate.
“Pretty similar enviroment for sure,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis told reporters, adding that it wasn't exactly the same because, at the time, CCL gave extra weight to away goals, which is not the case in the MLS Cup playoffs.
“Although I do think an away goal would put us in a pretty good spot,” Kreis said with a smile. “A three-goal advantage would certainly be nice, especially if we score the first one.”
Eight months after that one-goal loss that secured a win, RSL took a 3-0 lead to Seattle in the Western Conference Semifinals and lost 2-0, barely avoiding extratime and winning 3-2 on aggregate.
“We've played in these two-leg series a lot,” RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy told reporters. “And it helps to have experience in them, whether that's through failure or success.”
In other words, he thinks the Claret-and-Cobalt have learned a few lessons from some high-profile losses in two-leg series — to Dallas in the 2010 MLS Cup playoffs; to Monterrey in the 2011 CCL finals; to Seattle in the 2012 MLS playoffs.
“Our guys have been through so many tactical situations that I'm pretty sure I could ask them questions about what needs to be done and they'd all have the correct answers,” Kreis said.
Added Grabavoy: “It definitely helps to go through different situations and scenarios. And we find ourselves in another one this weekend that's completely different from the first leg.”
In the first leg, Salt Lake were out to establish a lead. Having done so, the second leg is about winning, tying or losing by one goal. This is a championship game and RSL have the lead — and an attitude of keep calm and carry on.
“We know how important this game is, and a lot of players have been there in this situation,” said goalkeeper Nick Rimando. “We've just got to go out there and play. You don't want to put too much pressure on yourselves.”