SANDY, Utah – It may not have been the goalfest seen in other Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs games on Saturday, but the frantic play between Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers led to an entertaining Round One clash.
The teams swapped periods of dominance, before RSL grabbed the late winner to take a 2-1 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium.
A slow start led to a dominant first half for RSL, before Damir Kreilach’s goal forced Portland to come out and play, but the Timbers could not find a way to respond until the second half.
“We just didn’t find the game at all in the first half,” Portland head coach Giovani Savarese said after the game. “First half we didn’t show up. We were lucky to be 1-0 down. The second half was all us.”
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Minutes into the second half, Dairon Asprilla scored on a header off a corner kick and the Timbers were back in the match, going on to control most of the run of play in the second 45.
“It told us we were back in the game, mentally more than anything,” Portland forward Jeremy Ebobisse said. “We talked about maybe being a little bit frantic. To get that goal so early after the break, it felt almost like floodgates were opening up. We definitely felt a lot more comfortable on the ball. Our movements were more fluid. It was disappointing we couldn’t push on it and add to our advantage.”
A big part of Portland not taking a lead in the second half was Nick Rimando’s play in goal.
“We went through a tough spell there. We couldn’t quite get to the ball. We couldn’t quite find the loose ball. It was bouncing and would end up with their players,” RSL head coach Freddy Juarez said following his first playoff win as a head coach.
“The guy is awesome. He pulled one out on his left side that I had to clap my hands when he did that. If you’re thinking we’re going to Seattle and he’s not going to have to make a save, he’s going to have to. That’s the way the playoffs are,” he added.
After weathering the Timbers' charge for the majority of the second half, Salt Lake found their game winner in the 87th minute, with Jefferson Savarino notching the all-important goal. Juarez noted the need for RSL's key attackers to step up in the moment, referencing a timely dummy by Albert Rusnak to set up the winner.
“We talked about before the game we can’t let the game go on and on without Savarino touching the ball. We can’t let the game go on without Albert touching the ball,” Juarez said. “Savarino in the first half was good. He was confident. He forced their defenders to have to defend. [On the goal], Albert super unselfish senses it, lets it run through.”
Even with Rusnak and Savarino’s contribution, that goal may not happen without substitute Joao Plata sticking with the pass with Timbers defenders bearing down on him.
“As he was going on I said to make sure these guys have to work hard, create a little bit of chaos,” Juarez said. “Plata was brave in a couple things today. That’s what we ask from guys who come in, they have to try and make a difference.”
Making the difference, even when it was measured in inches, was just the response Juarez was looking for in the playoffs, and now RSL have a date in the Western Conference semifinals coming up at the Seattle Sounders on Wednesday (10 pm ET | FS1 in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada).
“It’s hard to control a whole 90 minutes, but we controlled most of it,” Juarez said. “It’s playoffs. Teams respond and they add a little extra.”