Audi MLS Cup Playoff games are kind of like wrecking balls. They don’t see the old skyscraper a group of people took time to build – it’s not their job to see it. It’s their job to smash it. The playoffs don’t care about how good you were in the regular season. No, they’re designed to wreck the regular-season standings in a way that would make Miley Cyrus proud.
What happened to Seattle, the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed? The wrecking ball got them, without even taking a shot in regulation. What about No. 1 seed Colorado…surely they’re alright? The wrecking ball got them in the time between when we all finished our turkey and started on the pumpkin pie. What about Sporting Kansas City, the No. 3 seed? They’re gone too, thanks to the outside of Bobby Wood’s right foot.
The Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake, who meet in Saturday's Western Conference Final (6:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes), have eliminated the top three seeds in the West. RSL (No. 7 seed) took down Seattle in Round One before beating SKC in the Conference Semifinals. Portland (No. 4 seed) have done their share of damage too, making it past Minnesota before besting the Rapids on Thanksgiving Day.
Now, which data-infused storylines are worth following when these two giant killers meet on Saturday? Let’s take a closer look.
Outside of Gio Savarese and Pablo Mastroeni, there weren’t many folks out there who had Portland and Real Salt Lake advancing to the Western Conference Final in their playoff brackets. Put simply, neither Portland nor Salt Lake have the underlying numbers of a potential Western Conference winner.
Per Second Spectrum, both Portland and RSL operated at a negative expected goals differential during the regular season, meaning they allowed more xG than they created in 2021. For reference, only one MLS Cup entrant in the last five years has had a negative xG differential, per American Soccer Analysis: the 2019 Seattle Sounders. Playoffs are unapologetically unpredictable and they have no issue reversing regular-season standings and trends (wrecking ball, remember?). But this matchup was unpredictable even by playoff standards.
In this year’s regular season, the Timbers struggled mightily to limit their opponents’ chances. Only three teams gave up more open-play xG in the regular season and no other team gave up more xG on free kicks and corner kicks than Portland. They’ve been excellent in the attack, though, creating the seventh most xG in the regular season and receiving the seventh most passes between the lines per 90 minutes.
RSL, for their part, have played some edgy soccer under Pablo Mastroeni. From Aug. 27, the date Mastroeni was appointed interim head coach, to the end of the regular season, only three teams gave up more open-play xG than RSL and only two teams have given up more open-play goals than RSL. But like the Timbers, they’ve also been dangerous with the ball. Between Aug. 27 and the end of the regular season, RSL registered the second most open-play goals in MLS and the fourth most expected goals in the league.
Portland and Real Salt Lake like to play with fire – and in the postseason thus far, they’ve both caught it.
One key for RSL during their two playoff games is their ability to have success while taking different approaches.
Against the Sounders in Round One, they played a defensive game. Their front two and central midfielders shifted back and forth to block off Seattle’s passing lanes into central midfield, which made it difficult for the Sounders to create much in the attack.
That stuff was RSL’s bread and butter in Round One. What about their attack, you ask? Well, uh, shots are for teams that don’t have David Ochoa ready to go live on Instagram or to take shots at the Power Rankings after wins, okay?
In their Conference Semifinal against Sporting KC, RSL controlled much more of the ball – at least in part because Peter Vermes drew his line of confrontation deeper downfield to draw out RSL. After going down a goal in the first half, the Claret-and-Cobalt used a mixture of defensive pressure, tactical fouls and impactful substitutes to storm back and beat SKC.
They didn’t create an overwhelming number of chances (10 shots in open play and just over 1 xG), but they held Kansas City to 0.17 open play xG, which is the lowest output of any team in any playoff game so far this season.
While RSL may gain a playmaker for Saturday’s matchup, Portland will be without Sebastian Blanco, their star attacking midfielder.
Blanco, who scored a brace in Portland’s Round One win over Minnesota, left the Timbers’ win over Colorado in the second half with a hamstring injury. It’s hard to overstate just how big of a loss the Argentine is for the Timbers. From Aug. 1 to the end of the regular season, Blanco put up the fourth most xA in MLS to go along with the most xG of any out-and-out attacking midfielder in the league.
Still, even without Blanco and Dairon Asprilla (red card suspension), there’s potential for the Timbers to string together some impressive attacking sequences: Portland have produced two of the best attacking games in the postseason this year. They put Minnesota under real pressure in transition moments and came to life with four sizable chances either in attacking transition or on set pieces in the final 25 minutes against the Rapids, all without Blanco on the field.
They’re hosting at Providence Park, but we could see the Timbers take a more reserved approach when it comes to possessing the ball against RSL. No team in MLS averaged less possession than Portland did in the regular season and so far in the playoffs, the Timbers have ceded the majority of the ball to their opponents.
Without Blanco to act as a point guard in possession, the stage is set for Portland to rely on transition attacks, which is something they thrived on in the regular season. The Timbers generated the sixth most xG in MLS in counter-attacking situations this year, while RSL allowed the 10th most xG in counter-attacking situations.
If they’re able to get out on the break, Portland could be in business.
Portland and RSL weren’t the most likely teams to make deep playoff runs, but they’ve both taken full advantage of the unpredictable, wrecking ball-esque nature of the postseason. With different personnel preparing to get involved in the attack, various tactical battles in the works and a spot in MLS Cup on the line, Saturday is full of storylines.