The moment the referee called a penalty for the Timbers at Jeld-Wen field midway through the first half of the conference semifinal versus Seattle, you knew this game would be fun to watch. And also not into overtime like the other playoff games. For Salt Lake the moment came when the diminutive, 5'5" Sebastian Velasquez was left alone for a header that tied the global score.
The results now pit RSL and the Portland Timbers in a somewhat unprecedented Western Conference final with two of the youngest coaches in the league in Caleb Porter and Jason Kreis. Beating the establishment figures of Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid speaks volumes for them and for the development of American soccer coaches.
Salt Lake imposed their game on the Galaxy but it was more the Galaxians' lack of cohesiveness, luck and missing pieces that assured the team would not threepeat in winning the tournament. Perhaps the Magee-Robbie Rogers transfer was the worst decision by Arena and Galaxy management and could arguable have cost them the title.
For Seattle the negatives are a bit more grave. For one, the Dempsey transfer has been a dud since he has only managed to score once in 11 days ever since his record-setting signing from Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League. Martins, Rosales and Johnson bore some of the brunt but still couldn't make it work for a heavy-spending and trophy-hungry fan base that continues to set records in attendance. Clearly, something must be done and Sigi Schmid is in peril. Bob Bradley, anyone?
The Portland Timbers have played their game. Caleb Porter's game. All offense and all defense in a perfect unit. Only five loses during the regular season and the only team to win both legs of the Conference semifinal and that didn't require overtime.
The key to Portland's success is their midfield: Diego Valeri, Will Johnson and Darlington Nagbe. Those three provide the spark and the goals. Chara, Alhassan and Zemaski contain the opposing squad while Kah and Danso outmaneuver attackers down the middle. Jack Jewsbury has found a nice spot for his new location at right back and is making the most of it.
Portland's win versus the Sounders was a tribute to their style. Will Johnson's well-taken penalty started things off right on time and Valeri's masterful goal added to Seattle's agony still in the first half. Danso's header early in the second half after a trademark fast-free kick played well with Caleb Porter. He nodded at the goal without much celebration as if saying "yup, I planned that."
Portland will need to be careful with lazy defending against RSL because Kreis's crew can punish you very fast, as was shown with Velasquez's go-ahead goal last night. DeAndre Yedlin's goal for Seattle, which sparked a 2-goal comeback, could have been averted by better positioning by Ricketts and the defense. Porter will need to fix these errors and prepare for a very difficult task in going to Utah this Sunday. They haven't defeated Salt Lake this season and now might be the time to do it.