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3 takeaways from RSL’s season-ending defeat to the Portland Timbers

Real Salt Lake interim coach Pablo Mastroeni walks across the field following the team’s loss to the Portland Timbers in the MLS soccer Western Conference final Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)
AP

Real Salt Lake overcame many things on its improbable path to the Western Conference Final, but there was one thing the squad just couldn’t overcome: the Portland Timbers.

By a final tally of 2-0, the Timbers put an end to RSL’s Cinderella run in the MLS playoffs Saturday evening and improved to 4-0 against The Claret and Cobalt this season.

Felipe Mora and Santiago Moreno were the goal-scorers for Portland.

Saying all week that they had fed off the silence that they created amongst crowds during their three-game road winning streak, RSL players walked off the field at Providence Park to the deafening roars of the Timbers’ faithful, an unfortunate end to a season that exceeded many expectations.

RSL’s closest chance at goal came in the 33rd minte when Aaron Herrera sent an outstanding cross towards Damir Kreilach, who headed the ball towards goal only to have it saved by Portland keeper Steve Clark.

Trailing by two goals in the final half hour of the match, things got worse when Herrera was shown his second yellow card in the 79th minute, reducing RSL to 10 men as it attempted a comeback that did not materialize.

It was ultimately a respectable showing for Real Salt Lake, which nearly split possession with the Timbers but couldn’t put its chances away.

The result ushers RSL into an offseason that will determine the future trajectory of the club, from ownership to coaching and personnel. All three levels have questions that will likely be answered in the club’s upcoming off months.

Here are three takeaways from the season-ending defeat.

Goal gifted

When the initial whistle blew, RSL had a clean slate and a chance to put the struggles it had against Portland all season long behind it.

That clean slate, however, would not last very long.

A poor attempted clearance from Herrera put the ball right at the feet of Felipe Mora, who had an easy tap-in goal just five minutes into the match, putting the Timbers into the lead quickly.

As if finally beating Portland wasn’t already a back-breaking ask for The Claret and Cobalt, gifting a goal that early in the match made the steep task even more difficult.

Both Kreilach and interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni said after the game that both of the goals they conceded were fortuitous in nature for Portland.

“We wanted to keep a zero in the back as long as possible,” Kreilach said after the match. “Unfortunately, it was an unlucky goal that we conceded.”

Portland more lethal in possession

Throughout the match, the ball was possessed fairly equally by both teams (51-49 split in favor of Portland), but the Timbers were significantly more decisive and threatening with the ball at their feet.

While the Timbers worked the ball into dangerous positions that, at times, forced RSL into critical mistakes, RSL struggled to get the ball in the same positions on their attacking end of the field — as had been the case all season when the two sides matched up.

All told, in Portland’s four games against RSL, the club averaged 3.5 goals per contest.

“Overall it was a good performance, but unfortunately we didn’t score the chances we had,” Kreilach said. “At the end of the day, I think Portland deserved to win tonight.”

Nothing to be ashamed of

Though it didn’t end the way they’d hoped, what this RSL squad accomplished this season, especially in the last month, was nothing short of spectacular.

Losing its head coach in the middle of the season, the team rallied around Mastroeni, who earned significant consideration for the permanent gig, and learned to believe in themselves when nobody else did.

That belief led a team that was picked in the preseason to finish near the bottom of the league into the Western Conference final, which is certainly something that the club should be proud of.

“I couldn’t be more proud of being a part of this group,” Mastroeni said. “Nobody gave us a shot when the season started and no one gave us a shot when the playoffs started, but we got here.

“To have the mental toughness to overcome the perception of who we are has been fantastic.”