Both Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake can justifiably say they deserved to win Saturday’s Major League Soccer clash between the Western Conference rivals at Jeld-Wen Field.
Darlington Nagbe’s second-half brace fired Portland into a 2-1 lead that they held until Jonny Steele’s 89th-minute equalizer. Real captain Kyle Beckerman’s injury-time volley snatched all three points for the visitors.
Real’s composure, organization and ability to involve their front players ultimately proved decisive. Portland couldn’t keep hold of the ball long enough when trying to protect their lead and were forced deeper into their own half as the match wore on.
Portland Head Coach John Spencer made two changes following his team’s 1-0 loss at New England Revolution one week earlier. Rookie defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste replaced Hanyer Mosquera in central defense after the Colombian suffered a concussion at Gillette Stadium. Kalif Alhassan failed to recover from his groin injury. Nagbe dropped to the right side of midfield and Jorge Perlaza came in up front alongside designated player Kris Boyd.
Real Head Coach Jason Kreis made three changes following his side’s shock 1-0 reverse at home to Chivas USA. First-team stalwarts Nat Borchers and Javier Morales returned in place of Chris Schuler and Sebastian Velasquez. Alvaro Saborio started up front alongside Paulo Araujo Jr. with Fabian Espindola dropping to the substitutes’ bench.
The Timbers started out in a conventional 4-4-2 system with Eric Alexander, Diego Chara, captain Jack Jewsbury and Nagbe lined across the midfield. Spencer changed to a diamond formation within the first 20 minutes, matching Salt Lake’s shape, to counter the possession of Beckerman, Morales and Ned Grabavoy.
Real weathered a couple of early Portland attacks before Morales began to weave his craft. The two-time MLS All-Star, so often found in the hole between the midfield and forwards, dropped to Luis Gil’s right on five minutes to keep a counter-attack going as Real moved the ball from left to right before switching back as Chris Wingert arrived on the overlap. Morales darted to the near post to meet the full-back’s cross. His improvised looping header didn’t have enough height to beat Timbers’ goalkeeper Troy Perkins.
Morales’ passing skills emerged a minute later when the Argentine playmaker clipped a delightful pass beyond Portland’s defense. Eric Brunner did enough to prevent Araujo Jr. from having a clear run on goal.
Wingert’s forward runs and Morales’ tendency to drift out to the left were causing Portland problems. Morales released the overlapping full-back in the penalty area on 14 minutes, but Perkins pounced to smother the St. John’s University alum’s cutback.
Spencer’s response to Real’s growing dominance was to move Nagbe into a central position, pressing higher against the deep-lying Beckerman. Chara and Alexander matched up directly against Grabavoy and Gil, and Jewsbury dropped deeper to protect against Morales.
Quickness Versus Calmness
The first half developed into a battle of differing tempos. Portland’s success came from quick, direct play. Real goalkeeper Nick Rimando’s kicking looked suspect when pressed by Boyd and Perlaza, and the latter should have opened his account for the season on 32 minutes.
Chara’s forceful run and through ball found Perlaza racing clear on Rimando’s goal. The Colombian hurried his shot into the side net when he had time to regain his balance on a rain-drenched surface after initially side-stepping the onrushing goalkeeper to leave an empty net.
Salt Lake’s attacks were becoming fewer but more pointed, and the visitors took the lead from the penalty spot on 39 minutes. Grabavoy’s charge into the box was halted by Rodney Wallace’s outstretched arm as the Real midfielder tried to flick the ball past the final defender. Saborio wrong-footed Perkins with his kick, and Wallace was fortunate to remain on the field after denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity.
Portland could have leveled within a minute. Boyd’s cushioned header found Perlaza racing into the penalty area, but he couldn’t control his volley as the ball bounced up at a slightly awkward height.
Nagbe’s Brilliance Puts Timbers Ahead
Nagbe hauled Portland into a 2-1 lead with a couple of second-half strikes owing more to individual skill than sustained build-up.
There seemed little danger on 48 minutes when Real’s right-back Tony Beltran restarted play with a throw-in midway inside his own half. Brunner stuck a foot in to stop Morales gaining control and Alexander neatly flicked the ball inside to Nagbe. The 21-year-old turned away from Gil and advanced past Beckerman’s leadfooted challenge. Perlaza’s run opened up space for his teammate to step to his right and fire a low shot inside Rimando’s near post from 20 yards.
Portland’s second goal on 65 minutes evolved from a similar position. Chara and Alexander skillfully worked the ball out of a confined space near the touchline to set up Nagbe on the edge of the penalty area. The ball sat up perfectly for the Liberian forward to volley. He executed his shot with a little slice to loop it over and away from Rimando’s reach.
Real Snatch Win As Timbers Retreat
Real didn’t deviate from their principles and still created chances as the tide turned against them. Morales tried another lob over Perkins on 51 minutes, this time with a deft right-foot chip, and Saborio hit the post one minute later after being set up by Araujo Jr.
Kreis pepped up his attack in the closing stages by bringing on Espindola for Araujo Jr. and sending on Steele for Beltran.
Spencer sought to hold on to Portland’s lead by swapping Chara for the more defensive James Marcelin in midfield.
Portland should have sealed the win on 88 minutes. The subdued Boyd evaded Real’s marking at Jewsbury’s free-kick, but he didn’t connect properly with his header. Brunner couldn’t stretch far enough to steer the ball in at the back post. It was a costly miss.
Substitute Marcelin, who had already picked up a booking for scything down Morales, was caught in possession by the Argentine 40 yards from Portland’s goal. Steele, Morales and substitute Will Johnson combined around the edge of the penalty area to set up a shooting chance for the Northern Irish midfielder. Steele calmly side-footed his shot low into Perkins’ far corner.
Still the drama wasn’t finished. Eight Portland outfield players retreated deep into their penalty box in the third minute of injury time as Espindola attacked down the left. A lack of pressure allowed the Argentine forward to lift his head and pick out the unmarked Beckerman at the edge of the penalty area.
Kreis’ captain stunned the Timbers Army with a precise volley that sent Real Salt Lake back to the top of the Western Conference.
Portland had enough chances during their attacking spurts to have put this game away. Instead, Real’s composed passing and desire to work the ball into shooting areas finally wore them down. Salt Lake dominated possession with 61% and 540 passes compared to only 334 from Portland.
Possession never tells the full story. It was the involvement of Real’s forwards – Saborio, Araujo Jr. and later Espindola up front added to Morales’ prompting – that tipped the game in the visitors’ favor. Morales was directly involved in 111 events during the game compared to only 58 from Nagbe, and Salt Lake’s defense restricted Boyd to only one off-target attempt.
The Scottish striker has been pretty quiet since his goal-scoring debut against Philadelphia Union on March 12.