Voices: Steve Zakuani

Three Takeaways from Portland Timbers beating RSL to reach MLS Cup 2021

The Portland Timbers are marching onto MLS Cup 2021, hosting the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs championship match after a 2-0 Western Conference Final win over Real Salt Lake on Saturday.

From a memorable night at Providence Park, here are three takeaways.

Home sweet home

The debate about who has the best home atmosphere in MLS may never be truly resolved. LAFC, Atlanta and Seattle will all feel they’re deserving of that title, and while they have strong points, on Saturday night the only atmosphere that mattered was Portland's as they put aside RSL to earn a third MLS Cup trip in seven years.

Given RSL’s fairytale run, I admit to feeling as if they would pull off the win someway, somehow. But Portland were simply too strong and will now host MLS Cup for the first time after winning in 2015 at Columbus and losing in 2018 at Atlanta.

“That means everything. We played the whole season to win the MLS Cup,” midfielder Marvin Loria said. “Now we [completed] the first step, but now we do it next weekend. We have respect for whoever [we play next], but we have to be ready for the next one.”

Having home-field advantage has meant very little so far in these playoffs, but when a team combines that edge with a strong performance from one or two unexpected guys, their chances of victory become that much bigger.

And one of those unexpected guys was Colombian winger Santiago Moreno, a midseason U22 Initiative signing who played all of 349 regular-season minutes. But his 61st-minute strike was sublime, and he severely lessened the blow of missing Sebastian Blanco (hamstring injury) and Dairon Asprilla (red card suspension).

Another thing Portland have going for them is they can play in numerous ways, but their absolute deadliest style is perfectly suited for the postseason or tournament soccer in general – as we saw when they won the MLS is Back Tournament in 2020.

It’s not just that they are sometimes at their best when they bunker in and try to counter-attack, it’s that they are very organized defensively and once they do get out on the break, they know how to pick the right pass and make the right decision in the final third.

But they can also hurt you with long bouts of possession and intricate passing. And so they possess what the very best teams have in common when it comes to knockout soccer: versatility.

Their regular season was up and down for the most part, but once again they're showing that when it comes to crunch time, they have a squad and identity designed for times like this.

“We’ve been able to bring the right players to create a strong culture,” Savarese said. “We enjoy being around each other in the facility, to coming in to work. It really feels that we are a family and as a family, we’ve gone through difficult moments, good moments, but it’s the character in how we handle those moments as a unit, as a group, as a family is what we are so proud of.

“It’s been worked on from me, my staff, everyone in the organization, the players – those that are here today, those that have been here and are no longer here that put their contribution for us to be here today. That’s why I think Portland has always shown to be a strong group in Major League Soccer.”

RSL's magic runs out

I think many of us believed this may just be Real Salt Lake’s year, as they overcame two of the West's best in Seattle and Sporting KC to arrange this matchup. They were the perfect candidate for the Cinderella story, but it wasn’t meant to be and Portland proved to be one step too far for the Utahns – dropping the four-game season series (all loses) by a combined 14-4 scoreline.

They missed the physicality of the suspended Everton Luiz in midfield. And while goalkeeper David Ochoa and defender Aaron Herrera were stellar beforehand, both chose the wrong time to have an off night.

What RSL did with an in-flux ownership situation and no permanent manager must be respected. But in the end, if we're being honest, they didn’t have the quality necessary to outlast the West. On a night when their talisman Albert Rusnak returned, they were unable to find him in the spots he needed to put Portland under the kind of pressure that could have really made this game interesting.

With that said, there will be enough time to dissect exactly what went wrong and in what areas they need to improve going forward. But for now, when you consider all they’ve had to face off the field, RSL's 2021 season can only be considered a success.

“I think the main point is what we realized about five games ago, that we are a really good defensive team,” midfielder Damir Kreilach said postgame. “If everyone is on the same page and if everyone fights for every single inch on the field, then it is so hard to score on us. We proved this in the last game of the season against KC, against Seattle and then against KC again.

“Then unfortunately we didn’t tonight, but we have to take this part of the game with us into next season because as long as you give yourself a chance to win the game, if that means keeping zero in the back, then we are in a good spot. Now it's on us to keep building, to believe in ourselves and come back stronger next year.”

MLS Cup favorite?

I respect Philly and NYCFC, but this is now Portland’s MLS Cup to lose – regardless of who advances from the Eastern Conference Final.

Head coach Giovanni Savarese’s team knows how to use Providence Park’s home atmosphere to their advantage. They also tend to get at least one or two of their best players to play well when it most counts. I cannot remember the last time Diego Chara, Sebastian Blanco or Diego Valeri (when he was more heavily involved) all had a bad game in the playoffs.

They match up really well against whoever emerges from the East because their style can adapt to almost any scenario. If they need to sit deep and absorb pressure, they can. If they need to probe and get their playmakers on the ball, they can. They are very adaptable, and also stingy defensively while having enough at the other end to give themselves a chance in any one-off game.

Although we cannot prove this, based on what I’ve seen, I do believe the West is stronger than the East. And I just cannot see a club like the Timbers passing up this chance to make history in front of their fans.

In a final, you need to get that extra boost from somewhere and there’s no need to guess where Portland will get theirs from. A fully fit team, with that home support, should be too much for whoever emerges in the East. To not win MLS Cup at this point, with how everything has shaped up, would be a colossal failure on their part.

"Now we have MLS Cup, so we need to prepare very well. It's not going to be an easy match," Savarese said. "There's a lot that we have to prepare for, but the fact only that we were able to achieve that, to play this game here, it makes us feel very proud. Not only as I said for our fans in the stadium, but for the city of Portland."