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Blanco's brace pushes Real Salt Lake's playoff hopes to brink with 3-1 loss

Portland Timbers midfielder Sebastian Blanco (10) celebrates a goal as they and Real Salt Lake play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.

Portland Timbers midfielder Sebastian Blanco (10) celebrates a goal as they and Real Salt Lake play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)


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Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SANDY — The assignment was as straightforward as it comes in Major League Soccer: Win, and you're in.

Not so fast, Real Salt Lake.

Sebastian Blanco scored a brace to help Portland Timbers FC clinch a home playoff match with a 3-1 win Wednesday night over Real Salt Lake in front of an announced crowd of 18,405 fans at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Aaron Herrera had an own goal for Real Salt Lake (13-14-6, 45 points), which wrapped up the 2021 home schedule with a 9-4-4 mark.

Albert Rusnak scored on a penalty kick for RSL, converting from the spot in the 88th minute moments after second-half substitute Bobby Wood drew a yellow-card foul on a free header in the box.

Two free headers, an unlucky own goal, and a counter; it's the same things that have done in Real Salt Lake in previous losses this year, the captain said.

"It's all the stuff that we spoke about leading up to this game," said Rusnak, who scored his 11th goal of the season. "It's frustrating. I feel like a broken record talking about the same things over and over again. I don't know, honestly.

"We've got one more game left, but we missed two huge opportunities at home to clinch playoffs. It's on us, and we're going to have to do it the right way and the hardest way possible."

After sparking hope with a second-half rally in Dallas, Real Salt Lake's home campaign ended with a whimper in back-to-back losses at Rio Tinto Stadium.

The loss doesn't mathematically eliminate RSL from the playoff chase, but it does push the Sandy-based soccer side to the brink. Salt Lake has 45 points and will need all three points from Sunday's season finale at Sporting Kansas City (4 p.m. MT, KMYU). They'll also need the LA Galaxy, which sit two points above RSL in the Western Conference standings, to lose at home to Minnesota United.

So like the Black Knight of Monty Python lore, Salt Lake's playoff hopes aren't dead yet. But things would've been a lot easier with a win Wednesday.

"The most important thing is looking at Kansas City and getting the three points," RSL interim manager Pablo Mastroeni said. "We've got everything to play for."

On a night honoring club legend Kyle Beckerman with a special tribute to the Utah Valley head coach at halftime, RSL had everything in front of it.

Win and you're in; Salt Lake needed three points at home against Portland to clinch a playoff berth to cap the club's tumultuous 2021 campaign. Already down a head coach and in the midst of an ownership search, it all came down to one night.

But the Timbers struck early.

After fending off back-to-back attempts from Maikel Chang and Everton Luiz, Blanco gave Portland a 1-0 advantage, converting a two-touch header from the corner flag to put the Timbers in front in the 17th minute.

Yimmi Chara's corner kick swerved off the back of Cristhian Paredes, whose no-look attempt found Blanco at the far post for the easy tap-in header. Cool, calm, collected, and Portland — which was seeking to clinch a home playoff game with a win — had the lead.

But that wasn't the first — or last — chance for two clubs throwing caution to the wind in the penultimate match of the regular season.

RSL and Portland combined for 20 shots, including six on goal (RSL had four of them). Possession and slow play were out the window; both sides wanted a win. Both sides needed a win — Salt Lake only slightly more.

One month removed from a 6-1 rout over Salt Lake at Providence Park, Portland looked to want it just as much in the opening half. The Timbers doubled the advantage with a high-flying counter attack down the right flank in the 38th minute and a cross that caromed off Herrera's toe for the 2-0 scoreline.

The wing defender did everything right on the play, Rusnak said of Herrera's effort. But that probably just makes it all the more frustrating.

"If he doesn't touch that ball, someone would tap it in," Rusnak added.

Blanco's second goal made it 3-0 just before the half, when the Argentine winger converted a 3-on-2 counter attack in the final third into a goal inside the left post for his 32nd career goal in MLS.

Justin Meram's halftime substitution did little to ignite the RSL offense. Same with Bobby Wood's insertion around the hour mark. Joni Menendez replaced Chang in the 75th minute, but barely threatened in the final third.

Wood earned the penalty with about five minutes remaining in regulation, when Claudio Bravo earned a yellow card on a free header in the box that Rusnak stepped up to convert. Bravo's foul means he will be forced to sit Sunday's season finale against Austin FC with yellow card accumulation.

But it wasn't enough for RSL.

Maybe Sunday will be.

"It wasn't our night," Mastroeni said. "But we've just got to crack on."

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