Saturday saw Real Salt Lake facing a Portland Timbers side desperate to grab a win on the road, but a renewed attacking approach and a rediscovered killer instinct from set pieces saw the Claret-and-Cobalt exit with the honors.
Javier Morales scored RSL's first set piece goal since a 2-1 home loss to San Jose on June 23. It is no coincidence that the free-kick-goal scorer that night was Javier Morales — and before that, you won't find another free kick goal from RSL in 2012.
But on Saturday, the team scored two of those, and both of them had a distinct Morales influence to them. The first free kick, a perfect display of the connection between Morales and Fabian Espindola, was laid off by the playmaker for the mercurial striker, who spotted the smallest of holes forming in the wall. With the instincts of a samurai, Espindola slammed the ball through, leaving second-string Timbers keeper Joe Bendik with nary a chance of saving.
The second, Morales’s magnificent strike from 25 yards out, dipped just under the crossbar, and it was clear from the Argentine's celebrations that he'd been waiting some time for that.
The Beckerman Influence
As shown in their 2-2 draw with San Jose earlier in the week, Portland has a penchant for quality counterattacking play. Against RSL on Saturday, though, there was little of that to be seen. Three of the big attacking names were ineffectual at best: Franck Songo'o, Danny Mwanga and Darlington Nagbe were mere ghostly images of their swashbuckling selves.
What kept the triumvirate quiet? A subtle but strong performance from Kyle Beckerman, plain and simple. RSL's captain was always taking up the right positions, removing any need for last-ditch tackles and strong pressure — he made his stead in front of the back four, cut out the passing lanes, and prevented forward-moving progress.
Of course, Beckerman was hardly alone in the endeavor: Fellow midfielders Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy also got back efficiently when RSL wasn't in possession. As a result, Mwanga and Nagbe were forced largely into making backward passes, and attacks were continually pushed away from the final third.
Not every attack was scuppered, of course, and Nick Rimando was forced into making a few stellar saves — but these came largely through set pieces and quick counter attacks, and it was only when the midfield was almost entirely bypassed that the Timbers looked dangerous. Those are a different issue, but that RSL didn't concede many chances through the middle of the park will lift Jason Kreis and the team's collective spirits.