SANDY, Utah – One play encapsulated the night for the Portland Timbers.
Normally dependable center back Mamadou “Futty” Danso couldn’t pull the trigger on an easy clearance, allowing Real Salt Lake’s Robbie Findley to pick his pocket and slot home an easy goal that turned a glorious start for the Timbers into a 4-2 RSL rout in Sunday night's first leg of the Western Conference Championship at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Findley’s strike, his first since mid-August, sparked four straight goals after the Timbers had jumped ahead on a 14th-minute free kick blast by former RSL midfielder Will Johnson. The final result, Portland's third loss of the season season to the Claret-and-Cobalt, ends Portland’s 10-game unbeaten streak and presents them with a tall task in the second leg later this month.
“Futty is just as disappointed as all of us,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said of the big Gambian’s howler.
And while it may have been one small mental gaffe from a player who has helped lead Portland’s late-season defensive revival – the Timbers allowed just two goals in their final six regular-season games after Danso returned from injury, including five clean sheets – it represented a larger theme on the night.
After Johnson’s goal, the Timbers just stopped playing, Porter said.
“Honestly, it was one of the best 15 minutes of the year and one of the worst last 30 minutes of a half we’ve had all year,” Porter said. “And I don’t know what the reason was. I think, yeah, we scored a goal and stopped playing. I think we felt like we could just sit back and absorb. That wasn’t the plan. The plan was to push and be on the front foot and possess the ball like we did in that first 15 minutes to get the goal.
“When you do that against a team like Salt Lake and let them come at you, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Real did indeed take the fight to Portland after falling behind, to the tune of a nearly 20-percent advantage in possession rate in the first half. The reversal began in earnest with a Chris Schuler header off a corner kick in the 35th minute to level the score.
“I wasn’t surprised that they scored because when you sit back that much, as we did against a team like Salt Lake that is very good on the ball and has some very good attacking players, then you’re bound to give up a goal,” Porter said.
Then Danso’s mistake opened the floodgates.
“I made a decision that, maybe I should have just gone back to my goalkeeper,” Danso said of the play.
Devon Sandoval scored on a counterattack three minutes after halftime, and Javier Morales scored on another corner kick in the 82nd minute. Porter said the positive he gleaned amidst the wreckage is the fact that only one RSL goal came from the run of the play, while the other three were due to “correctable mistakes,” and that his side responded to the huge deficit by controlling much of the second half.
“You can look at the four goals and think that we got shredded, and we did more than we should have, but you cut out the two corner kicks and you cut out the one we just gave them and they scored one goal on a counterattack,” Porter said.
If it weren’t for a stoppage-time header by late substitute Frederic Piquionne, the Timbers would be heading back to the Rose City with little hope.
“These guys are mentally tough and have great character and that doesn’t change in one game,” Porter said. “They’re still the same team, but for whatever reason we just got away from some of the things we’ve done well.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.