SANDY — Real Salt Lake’s 14-game home unbeaten streak came to an abrupt end at the most inopportune time on Saturday night.
Portland’s Sebastian Blanco silenced the Rio Tinto Stadium not once, but twice in the final 20 minutes as the Timbers stunned Real Salt Lake 4-1 in a match that had major playoff implications for both teams.
It was the first home loss for RSL since the dreadful 5-1 home opener against Los Angeles FC on March 10.
“Tonight’s on me, got the tactics wrong. Thought we had a good game plan going in, we didn’t, now it’s going to be an interesting last two games. We’re going to see what we’re made of,” said RSL coach Mike Petke.
As discouraging as it was to concede three goals in the final 20 minutes, with two games remaining in the regular season, RSL still clings to the sixth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference — but the cushion has narrowed. The seventh-place L.A. Galaxy earned a tie at Kansas City on Saturday and improved to 45 points in the standings, just one behind RSL’s 46 points.
Real Salt Lake — which is 0-2-2 in its last four matches — has a bye next weekend to stew about the loss before wrapping up the season at home against New England and then at Portland in the regular season finale. It won’t be at full strength for the critical New England match either.
“It was a tough one, it wasn’t our best game, and they were really efficient in front of goal,” said Kyle Beckerman. “It was a tough one to take, one we didn’t expect, but we’re just going to get back to work and see if we can do better the next game.”
Beckerman and Sunday Stephen each picked up a yellow card in the second half on Saturday and will miss the next match because of yellow card accumulation.
RSL is still in control of its playoff fate, unlike a year ago, but it might need wins in each of its last two games to secure a playoff berth.
“I know everyone in here, we’re onto the next game already. We’re excited, we love competition, we love what we do and we’re going to go out next week and do better,” said defender Justen Glad.
Portland delivered its first blow in the 33rd minute on Saturday as Jeremy Ebobisse lunged to redirect a cross from Blanco just past Nick Rimando.
The Timbers had the better of the chances in the opening half, with Ebobisse nearly opening the scoring on a similar cross a few minutes prior to his goal. On that chance, he didn’t lunge for the cross, but he did on Blanco’s 33rd-minute cross and was rewarded.
RSL equalized early in the second half on a recycled corner kick that seemed to catch Portland’s defense by surprise as it came from the opposite side of the field. After Portland’s initial clearance, defender Aaron Herrera quickly played it wide to Joao Plata. When two defenders closed on Plata, Jefferson Savarino darted into the open space in the box and Plata slipped him a simple ball.
Savarino took one touch toward goal and then hammered a curling shot over Portland keeper Steve Clark, leveling the score 1-1 in the 55th minute.
Real Salt Lake remained on the front foot over the next 15 minutes, but it didn’t capitalize with a go-ahead goal, which left the door open for Portland to seize momentum right back.
In the 70th minute, Portland regained the advantage on a great individual play from Blanco. He beat Sunday Stephen to a headed clearance from Glad and then uncorked a left-footed shot that slipped past Nick Rimando.
Three minutes later, Blanco scored again as he ran onto a Diego Valeri through ball and dipped a difficult-angled shot past Rimando again for the 3-1 lead.
“They made some plays. Two plays by Blanco were high-quality plays and turned the game on its head,” said Kyle Beckerman.
Portland’s Lucas Melano wrapped up the scoring in the 89th minute as he capitalized on a poor decision from Nick Besler to throw the ball into Rimando. Melano got between Rimando and the ball, took a simple touch around him and tapped it into the open net.