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SANDY — Real Salt Lake kicked off the first leg of the Major League Soccer Western Conference Championship series Sunday night inside its fortress of Rio Tinto Stadium and sent the Portland Timbers home with a two-goal deficit in the series.
“The beginning wasn’t good, the end wasn’t good, the 75 minutes in between were really, really good,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis said of his club. “Credit goes to Will Johnson because that was a fantastic goal — we don’t get goals scored like that against you too often, but our response to that first goal was terrific. The guys just got better and better and better as the game wore on.”
Former RSL midfielder and current Portland captain Will Johnson put his club up 1-0 early in the match in the 14th minute off a free kick in a dangerous position right outside the box.
RSL answered back with a pair of goals in the 35th minute of play from defender Chris Schuler, who was assisted by midfielder Javier Morales, and the 41st minute from forward Robbie Findley, taking the game into halftime up 2-1.
The goal from Schuler was his second playoff goal, his first coming just three days ago in the club’s match last Thursday against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The beginning wasn't good, the end wasn't good, the 75 minutes in between were really, really good.
“(Schuler) is a regular goal scorer now, we’ll have him center forward in the next match” joked Kreis. “He’s terrific, and with his size and physical attributes, I’ve always felt like he should be a guy that should score about five goals a year on attacking dead balls. Good to see him coming into his own a little bit.”
RSL started off the second half with a 48th minute goal from rookie forward Devon Sandoval, which was assisted by Findley and Morales, putting the Salt Lake club up 3-1.
“Devon Sandoval is a first-year player, but he didn’t look like a first-year player to me,” said Kreis. “He looked like a guy that was seasoned, and that’s probably due to the fact that he’s played between five or 10 matches for us this year starting and has been very effective in those matches.”
RSL playmaker Morales got his head on a ball in the 82nd minute on an assist from forward Joao Plata, putting it right past Portland goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and ending the Salt Lake club's scoring on the night.
“Morales was special,” Kreis said of his contributions in the match. “The second goal, actually, if you go back and look at it, comes from him getting all the way back in our penalty box and making a defensive play, and when Javier Morales does that, we will succeed.”
The four minutes of stoppage time saw Portland sneak one more goal into the game off forward Frederic Piquionne, who entered the match for forward Rodney Wallace in the 75th minute.
It was a goal RSL would have rather not seen, but will look at it positively as it travels to Portland in two weeks for the second leg of the series.
“The second goal that Portland scored, you can look at that in two ways — we can look at that and be really, really disappointed and feel like if we go there with a three-goal lead it’s going to be an easier affair,” said Kreis. “Or we can look at that and say, you know what, we’ve just challenged ourselves a little bit more and we’re not going to be able to go there and sit back and just have a laugh for 90 minutes, we’re going to have to go there and work.”
RSL will travel to face the Timbers Nov. 24 in Portland. The winner of the score aggregate will advance as the Western Conference champion to the MLS Cup, which will be played on Dec. 7. Kira Terry is a sports writer covering Real Salt Lake for KSL.com. Follow her on Twitter, @kiraterry.