A late game-winner from Jefferson Savarino propelled Real Salt Lake to the next round of the MLS playoffs and sent the Portland Timbers home to start their offseason.
In a back-and-forth game Saturday that saw RSL dominate the first half and the Timbers roar back after the break, RSL made the most of its chances to win 2-1 at a blustery, sleet-soaked Rio Tinto Stadium. Real Salt Lake will head to Seattle to face the Sounders in the Western Conference semifinals Wednesday.
“I was very surprised by how flat we were,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said afterward.
In the 87th minute, Savarino collected a pass that beat Timbers left back Jorge Villafana, leaving space for Savarino to take a touch and fire. A full-stretch Steve Clark got his fingertips to the shot but couldn’t keep the game-winner out.
Real Salt Lake started the match as the aggressor, striking first as the Timbers struggled to get into a rhythm throughout the first half.
In the 28th minute, Corey Baird lofted a ball into the box and Damir Kreilach, running between the Timbers’ two centerbacks, easily headed it into goal as Larrys Mabiala and Bill Tuiloma were caught flatfooted ball-watching.
At halftime, Savarese was critical of his team’s performance, which resulted in zero shots total in the first half.
— Caitlin Murray (@caitlinmurr) October 20, 2019
They did show up in the second half. Within two minutes of resuming play, the Timbers found an equalizer off a corner kick. Dairon Asprilla — who has earned the nickname Mr. October for his penchant to score during the postseason despite regular-season struggles — ran into the box and headed down the lofted ball past goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
“We responded a lot better in the second half than we did in the first half, and then one vital play at the end (allowing RSL to score) sums up that second half,” forward Jeremy Ebobisse said after the game. “Maybe this game sums up our season as well, where it’s close but not enough.”
After a lackluster start, the Timbers unleashed a barrage of 12 shots in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to make up for RSL’s 16 shots through the game.
Blanco forced a full-stretch save out of Rimando in the 67th minute with a knuckling shot from outside the box. Six minutes later, Blanco tried an audacious bicycle kick on a bouncing ball that was deflected just wide.
RSL had a golden chance a few minutes earlier when Marcelo Silva drove a header toward goal off a Kyle Beckerman cross, but the attempt glanced wide.
The Timbers started without their veteran playmaker and assist-leader, Diego Valeri, who missed the previous two games due to a calf strain. He came on in the 63rd minute for Ebobisse and soon sent a shot from the top of the box just inches wide, striking an Asprilla pass one-time toward the far post.
Asked about his decision to start Valeri on the bench, Savarese said it was twofold: he wanted to manage Valeri’s minutes because he was coming back from injury, and Savarese felt the team that played on Decision Day without Valeri earned a chance to start against RSL.
— Jamie Goldberg (@Jamiebgoldberg) October 20, 2019
Valeri was perhaps the Timbers’ most important player last year in a run to MLS Cup when he scored four goals, two of them game-winners, and assisted on two others. He has also been in contract negotiations with the Timbers that have reached an impasse. There have been hints he may have played his last match for Portland.
The Timbers were also without high-priced striker Brian Fernandez, who entered the league substance abuse program last week.
This was the Timbers’ worst run in the postseason. Their previous three appearances all advanced to at least the Western Conference finals. But RSL’s opening goal spelled trouble for the Timbers, who have struggled to come back when conceding first — they’ve won just twice this year when they’ve conceded first.
The short playoff run caps a poor regular season for the Timbers. They lost five games at home — their most in a season since 2011, the year they joined MLS — and failed to climb up the standings after spending 12 games on the road due to construction at Providence Park. In addition to the controversies with Valeri and Fernandez, the Timbers were dogged with the league ban on political signage, as well.
“It would’ve been great to have made a run to cloud some of the difficulties we when through this year,” Ebobisse said. “But if we look back candidly, there were too many peaks and too many valleys.”
But it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for RSL, who fired head coach Mike Petke in August after he verbally assaulted referees following a friendly against a Liga MX team. The club now faces a wrongful termination lawsuit from Petke.
For the Timbers, it’s back to the drawing board during an offseason longer that they’d like.
“We have to see how we’re going to move forward and come back stronger next year,” Savarese said. “It’s unfortunate because we didn’t want to finish so early at this stage because we really believe in ourselves. But at the end, you have to do on the field and Real Salt Lake found that goal.”