PORTLAND — A Portland Timbers season that will long be remembered for the franchise’s remarkable turnaround needed one more reversal of fortune to become extra special.
But Real Salt Lake — a team the Timbers didn’t beat in six tries this season –— didn’t let it happen.
A rebound goal in the 29th minute from Robbie Findley gave RSL a 1-0 win in Sunday’s match and gave the visitors a three-goal victory in the two-match series. The 5-2 series win sends Real Salt Lake to the MLS Cup final. RSL will take on Sporting Kansas City on Dec. 7. Sporting Kansas City will host the game because it had more points in the regular season standings.
For the Timbers, a season filled with first-time successes ended one step shy of the championship match — and with only the second loss of the season at Jeld-Wen Field. A boisterous home crowd wasn’t enough to rally the Timbers past a poised and organized team from Salt Lake.
“It’s a disappointing feeling right now,” Timbers captain Will Johnson said. “In January and February we’ll all have better answers about how we felt about this season.”
The RSL goal came after Portland created plenty of early pressure without breaking through. Findley was in the right spot to poke the ball past Donovan Ricketts after the Timbers goalkeeper blocked a shot from Luis Gil.
The Timbers put the ball in the goal twice in the first half, but both goals were disallowed — one for a Portland foul on a corner kick and another that was — correctly — ruled offside.
Timbers coach Caleb Porter said he didn’t understand why Futty Danso’s goal from a corner kick in the 15th minute was waved off by referee Mark Geiger.
“That’s not the reason we lost the game. But I think that was a factor,” Porter said of Geiger disallowing the goal. “If you watch the play again, I’m left scratching my head what he saw on that play.”
Porter described the Timbers’ first 30 minutes on Sunday as probably their most dominating start to a match all season. But the disallowed goals and an inability to finish several other opportunities kept Portland from scoring first to make the rest of the match tense for the visitors.
“We were all over them. But credit to them for being strong in the air and keeping us out of the net,” Timbers defender Michael Harrington said. “When you’re on top of a team like that, you need to find a goal — especially in the situation where you’re two goals down (in the series).”
“It’s tough. We believed. We still kept pushing and trying,” Will Johnson said. “But if you get that first goal, that’s what really breaks the ice and opens the floodgates and really gives you a good chance to mount a comeback. But if you can never get that first goal, it becomes easier and easier for them as the game goes on.”
In addition to dropping three goals behind, the Timbers also lost two players to injury before halftime. In the 27th minute, Frederic Piquionne, who started at striker, limped off and was replaced by Maximiliano Urruti. And just before halftime, Kalif Alhassan replaced Rodney Wallace, who was hobbled after committing a foul midway through the first half.
Porter said he started Piquionne because the striker’s strength in the air could cause problems.
“I thought he was tremendous. When Piquionne was in there he was a handful,” Porter said.
Try as they might, the Timbers couldn’t create any top-notch chances in the second half against a RSL side that denied the Timbers’ playmakers any space and forced Portland to try pumping crosses into the 18-yard box. RSL center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler dominated that space.
“They were exceptional in the box tonight,” Porter said, lauding Borchers and Schuler. “We threw everything at them, and I thought they managed the box brilliantly.”
At the final whistle, Jeld-Wen Field exploded into a chant of “P-T-F-C” that was as loud as any heard in the 2013 season.
“It’s just fantastic to be supported in that way,” Harrington said, calling the fans’ support light in the darkness of defeat. “That’s rare, I think, even all over the world.”
Porter called RSL a deserving winner and a veteran organization that sets the kind of standard the Timbers will strive for. Even a season that produced a MLS-record turnaround in the standings, the Timbers coach said the standard is winning titles.
“We’re not going away,” Porter said. “This is just the beginning.”