This was a pretty comprehensive two-leg dismantling by Real Salt Lake, who deservedly march into their second MLS Cup two weeks from now. They did it because they had the best player in the series (Javier Morales) and a superior central defense.
They also had a fair portion of good luck, and far more flexibility. And you need all of that to get to the final game of the season.
Here are three things we learned about RSL's 5-2 aggregate win over the Timbers:
1. Rimando lets RSL defense play much higher
Nick Rimando is the best goalkeeper in the league with his feet, the prototypical "Sweeper-Keeper." And it's not just that he's good with his feet -- it's that his anticipation is fantastic, which means he can cover most of the ground behind his central defense.
Subtle, but difference here as well is Rimando. Portland dropping their line. RSL staying high, confident on Rimando's clean-up game.— Matthew T (@shinguardian) November 25, 2013
So because of Rimando, RSL's back four never lost their shape, and Portland never even got close to getting in behind them.
Donovan Ricketts, who was magnicient all year (but definitely not in this series), doesn't do the same things for the Timbers. He can be good off his line to cut down on chances, as he did to Robbie Findley midway through the second half, but there's a difference between that and being an auxiliary defender like Rimando.
So both Futty Danso and Pa Modou-Kah had to sit deep, and that gave Morales, and really the whole RSL midfield, space to work.
Look at how late Portland is to pressure Luis Gil and Ned Grabavoy. That doesn't happen against other teams.
Rimando isn't the sole reason, of course -- as with everything in soccer there are a million little factors that add up to big moments -- and RSL didn't use the space to "dominate" the game.
The just took the starch out of it, which is exactly what you're supposed to do when up big on the road.
Textbook away performance so far. RSL well organized, dominant in defending, yet always dangerous in transition. Good tactical blueprint.— Janusz Michallik (@JanuszESPN) November 25, 2013
2. Simple mistakes in the central defense
If this leg was defined by RSL's ability to keep Portland from grabbing ahold of the game, then the first leg was defined by Portland's simple (awful) mistakes in central defense.
That penchant reared its head in the second leg as well:
First, Kah cleared that right down the middle. Then he lost track of Robbie Findley for the rebound. That essentially was that as far as this series was concerned.
3. Don't let Chara and Johnson have their way
Diego Chara and Will Johnson have been, for long stretches, the most dominant defensive duo in the league. You'd be a fool to play through them.
So RSL just played around them:
This is the second game in row that RSL basically avoided the center of the field. As a result, Chara and Johnson never figured out where to chase Morales, Gil or Grabavoy, and were never really able to put any pressure on Kyle Beckerman when he was deep.
That turned out to be enough.
-- First, there are a lot of positives to take from this Portland season, and my gut says "Make them the 2014 Supporters' Shield favorites right now!" But the Western Conference is going to be brutal next year -- everybody but Chivas looks like a playoff team to me.
Comparatively, the Eastern Conference looks like a much easier route.
-- Second, Devon Sandoval has given Jason Kreis a big, big headache. RSL are, plain and simple, a better team when Sandoval's on the field, and that's probably not going to sit well with Alvaro Saborio.
Sandoval has to start. He's done it all season with his movement, and then in this one -- against one of the most physical central defensive combos in the league -- he more than held his own physically as well.
They'll need that in Kansas City.