Other tie between Kansas and Houston
23 November ~ This weekend sees the second legs of the two MLS Conference finals – the semi-finals of the national championship. The first match of the Eastern Conference between Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo two weeks ago was straight out of the league's cold-sweat-inducing nightmares – a dour 0-0 draw between teams that have now faced each other in the play-offs in each of the last three seasons. The next night, Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers of the Western Conference provided the antithesis.
Contested by a pair of budding rivals under the direction of two of the most exciting young coaches in MLS, the Western Conference final was wide open from the start. Portland opened the scoring with an early free-kick, Salt Lake roared back with four unanswered goals and former Portsmouth and West Ham man Frédéric Piquionne grabbed the Timbers a lifeline just seconds from full time. A 4-2 final score set up the perfectly poised second leg this Sunday night in Portland.
"Down by two, all of a sudden you take more risks and gamble," Portland coach Caleb Porter said. "We have 90 minutes to get those goals." The Timbers gelled quickly in their first season under Porter, their attacking style with flying wingers being bolstered by a pair of midfield acquisitions in Argentina international Diego Valeri and Canadian Will Johnson, previously with Real Salt Lake, Portland finished first in the Western Conference – and just two points short of the Supporters Shield, given to the top regular-season finisher in MLS.
"It's good when you can create a culture of winning," defender Michael Harrington said. "We have a balance of guys that have been around and some good younger players." The Timbers will also be bolstered by a home crowd crammed under the wooden eaves of Jeld-Wen Field that helped inspire a 3-2 defeat of rivals Seattle in the previous round.
But Salt Lake seem to have their number, after earned three victories and a pair of draws in five meetings with Portland this season. Manager Jason Kreis is similar to Porter, an unproven newcomer that quickly turned a losing club into a title contender. Just two-and-a-half seasons after exchanging his Real jersey for the dugout, he guided Salt Lake to their lone MLS Cup in 2009.
The core of his title-winning squad remains, and they've reached the play-offs in every season since. "It mostly comes down to two teams that want to play," Kreis said of his side and their opponents. "When both want to attack and dictate the flow, you open up some space to play in behind. I think that's why there's been lots of goals scored between us."
Two ambitious sides from what are regarded as small markets stand as a stark contrast to the LA Galaxy team that won the last three MLS titles. No matter who prevails on the field Sunday night, it's a tie that has already proved a win for the League. Matt Pentz