It’s been quite an interesting season for both the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake. Yet, each has found a way into the MLS Cup playoffs.
Each side’s MLS Cup quest begins Saturday night, when the No. 6 seed Timbers visit third-seeded Salt Lake in this Western Conference first-round match.
The 2019 campaign has been far from ordinary for Portland, the 2018 MLS Cup runner-up that played its first 12 games of this season on the road while Providence Park was getting a makeover. Though the Timbers did not fully take advantage of playing all but one of their matches at home over the final two months of the regular season, they reached the playoffs thanks to a 1-0-3 final push.
That stretch ended with a 3-1 victory over San Jose on Decision Day to punch Portland’s ticket to the postseason. Adding to the challenges that this season has presented for the Timbers, they’ll face RSL without co-leading scorer Brian Fernandez.
The Argentine striker had 11 goals in 19 MLS matches, but is away from the team while taking part in the MLS’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. Teammate Jeremy Ebobisse, who also scored a career-high 11 goals, is fit and ready to lead Portland into the playoffs but is not feeling much pressure to carry the load. It also helps that talented Portland captain Diego Valeri (eight goals, 16 assists) is fit to play Saturday.
“I don’t really like the term pressure,” Ebobisse, who has just three goals over his last 11 games, told the official website of MLS. “Just because, when an individual puts too much pressure on themselves, I think that sometimes you can see the best, but you also can see someone retreat into a shell. I think it’s a collective effort. We’re a team. We’re 11 guys, and we’re going to go out there and perform.”
The Timbers performed well while outscoring Salt Lake 3-1 in doing the season double for 2019.
RSL struggled a bit in the second half of September, but rallied to beat Houston on Sept. 29 and 1-0 at Vancouver on Decision Day to finish third in the West on 53 points. Like Portland, Salt Lake dealt with its share of adversity in 2019.
Coach Mike Petke was sacked over the summer for allegedly spouting a homophobic slur at a game official in late July. Petke turned around and is suing the team for its decision to fire him. In the wake of that situation, RSL and general manager Craig Waibel agreed to part ways last month.
Through all that, Salt Lake continued to produce and made the playoffs. Now, many pundits are not talking highly of the team’s chances for a deep postseason run. Salt Lake won the 2009 MLS title, but has not reached the title game since 2013 when it beat Portland in the West final.
“We’re like flying under the radar,” said legendary RSL keeper Nick Rimando, who could be playing his final league match before retiring. “We’re not the highlight team, but we handle our business undercover. That being said, there’s no reason we can’t make it to (the) MLS Cup.”
RSL was grateful to earn a match at home, where it’s 12-4-1. Midfielder Albert Rusnak had a team-leading 10 goals, but only one over his last seven contests.