1st leg: Sunday, Nov. 10 -- 9 p.m. ET (live on ESPN and WatchESPN)
2nd leg: Sunday, Nov. 24 -- 9 p.m. ET (live on ESPN and WatchESPN)
How they got here: Real Salt Lake
Jason Kreis’ team -- in a year that was supposed to be something of a rebuild -- finished second in the Western Conference thanks to stellar play from a host of youngsters and a shared scoring burden. Maintaining their possession-based style of play, RSL scored the second-most goals in the regular season, behind only New York.
The conference semifinals matched up Salt Lake with the two-time defending champion LA Galaxy. Kreis’ side left the first leg at the StubHub Center with a one-goal deficit, benefiting from LA’s inability to finish several stellar chances after a tactical attempt to slow down the Galaxy’s attack was ineffective.
RSL turned the tie around in the second leg, with goals from unlikely sources -- Sebastian Velasquez and Chris Schuler -- combining with Nick Rimando’s shutout to see Kreis’ men through.
How they got here: Portland Timbers
Year one under Caleb Porter exceeded expectations, and then some. The former University of Akron head coach brought with him a keen tactical mind and a reputation for playing attacking soccer and turned the Timbers from an ugly, overly physical side into one of the league’s most attractive teams.
Portland was notoriously hard to beat in the regular season, a trait that earned them top seed in the Western Conference. After Seattle took down Colorado in the play-in round, the Timbers went toe-to-toe with their Cascadia rival in the semis.
A 2-1 win on the road staked Porter’s team to a lead they had no intention of relinquishing at home. With the foot on the petal, the Timbers raced into a 3-0 lead at Jeld-Wen Field and, despite a late Seattle flurry, advanced 5-3 on aggregate.
Regular season meetings
Two draws, either side of a Real Salt Lake win. The first two meetings were goal-fests, appropriate for the second- and third-highest scoring teams in MLS.
On Aug. 21 at Jeld-Wen Field, with each team playing without their captains and midfield engines (Portland’s Will Johnson and RSL’s Kyle Beckerman), a back-and-forth encounter finished 3-3 with RSL’s Cole Grossman scoring an added-time equalizer.
Nine days later in Utah, RSL won 4-2, with Javier Morales the star of the show. In a virtuoso display, the Argentine midfielder scored one goal and created another for Alavro Saborio.
The final match between the two came on the penultimate weekend of the season with both having already booked playoff places and only seedings on the line. The highlight of a scoreless draw was an athletic double-save by Nick Rimando in the closing moments that salvaged a point for RSL.
Key matchup: Kyle Beckerman versus Diego Valeri
We could just as easily identify the opposite matchup -- Javier Morales versus Diego Chara (or Will Johnson) -- as the key to the series, but Portland’s rampant goal-scoring form in recent weeks highlights Valeri.
The Argentine playmaker is a shoo-in for newcomer of the year, having led the seamless transition of the Timbers from John Spencer’s direct style to Caleb Porter’s more refined passing game.
Beckerman, Real Salt Lake’s captain and ultra-reliable midfield presence, is the man who will be most often tasked with slowing down the Timbers’ talisman. The veteran is the holding man in the RSL midfield diamond preferred by Kreis and has required him to not only break up opponents’ attacks and protect the backline, but to facilitate attacks.
X factor: Tactics
This matchup not only pits the top two regular season teams in the Western Conference against one another with an MLS Cup berth on the line, but also matches up two of the league’s most adept tactical coaches.
Kreis and Porter represent a departure from the league’s traditional model of coaches who prefer direct, physical play. While Porter garnered more headlines in 2013 for the Timbers’ stylistic shift in his debut year as a professional head coach, Kreis’ consistent ability to win while playing attractive soccer deserves equal praise.
Both men have also shown a propensity for making adjustments as the situation dictates, leaving open the question of just how this series will play out from a tactical standpoint. So much rides on the first leg in Sandy, where the tone will be set.
Will Porter play for goals on the road or power down his high-octane attack in a bid to keep the aggregate manageable for the second leg? How will Kreis play the second leg if has a lead?
The two-week international break throws another variable into the mix, as it provides ample rest for key players who are carrying injuries after a long season.
So much of this tie depends on the first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL absolutely must take a lead back to Portland, given the Timbers’ home form.
If the Timbers’ attack is even half as effective as it was against the Sounders in the second leg of the conference semifinals, Real Salt Lake will find it difficult to generate its own chances.
If it’s not Porterball (a term the Portland boss himself despises), it’s certainly something and it’s certainly difficult to beat. The Timbers are confident, relatively healthy -- getting Diego Valeri off early against Seattle might be massive for the first leg -- and rife with in-form, dangerous attackers who will stress RSL’s back line.
While RSL’s attack is nothing to sneeze at, one gets the feeling that the series will depend on how well RSL defends.
This is not last year’s Portland Timbers team, one which that couldn’t get a result on the road. A draw in Utah would suit them fine, and even a one-goal deficit would leave Porter’s team the favorite going into the second leg at the raucous Jeld-Wen Field at which the home team has lost just once in 2013.