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Lessons learned from Real Salt Lake 4-2 Portland Timbers

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Four thoughts on Real Salt Lake’s 4-2 win over the Portland Timbers in the Major League Soccer Western Conference final first leg on Sunday:

• Frédéric Piquionne’s last-gasp goal ensures the Timbers have a shot in the return leg. A three-goal deficit would have probably been too much to overcome, but two goals looks doable at JELD-WEN Field. Especially after Portland jumped out to a 3-0 lead on Seattle Sounders FC on Thursday, it seems no lead is safe headed into the Timbers Army’s cauldron.

The difference is, RSL has provided much more of a challenge for the Timbers all season long. It is the only team to take two results from JELD-WEN — thrilling 3-3 and 0-0 draws — and Portland has yet to win in four attempts in 2013 against Salt Lake.

• Real Salt Lake may be Portland’s bogey team after all. Players in the Timbers locker room after they advanced to the conference final insisted that they weren’t worried about their previous record against RSL. For the first 15 minutes or so, it didn’t look like it mattered, as Will Johnson thumped the visitors in front with a laser-beam free kick against his old club.

But just as Portland did to the Sounders, Salt Lake won its third match of the year against the Timbers, behind a three-goal surge on either side of halftime and a fourth in the last 10 minutes. Javier Morales looked to provide the killing blow in the 82nd minute, before Piquionne headed home a very late second goal for Portland.

• Morales won the battle of Argentine playmakers between him and Diego Valeri. The friends and countrymen play similar roles for their respective teams, but Morales fulfilled his obligations a bit better on Sunday than Valeri. Valeri may have completed a higher percentage of passes (16 of 19), but Morales could be forgiven his lower completion rate (36 of 54) for his influence all over the field.

morales vs valeriIt culminated in Caleb Porter taking Valeri off the field after just 53 minutes, whether it was because he looked tired or played ineffectively. (It probably wasn’t to save him for the second leg, since the teams get a 13-day break between games.) Meanwhile, Morales assisted on RSL’s first and third goals and finished off the fourth.

• How much did travel and the Wasatch altitude affect the Timbers? It’s only a 90-minute flight between Portland and Salt Lake, but after playing on Thursday, every bit of recovery possible makes a difference. Not having to travel allowed RSL to put its legs up a bit more, despite also playing on Thursday and going to extra time (albeit after an earlier kickoff than Portland-Seattle).

Perhaps a larger factor, though, was the altitude. Portland didn’t train in Salt Lake prior to the match, arriving after its session on Saturday in the Northwest. The change in altitude could also explain the Timbers’ strong start and tapering after the first half-hour or so. The playing field levels a bit in sea-level Portland.

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