Portland reminded of the difference between nemeses and rivals

Though they often go hand-in-hand, there is a difference between nemesis and rival, one that becomes murky within the narrow focus needed to appreciate a great derby. This week, over the course of 44 hours, that distinction was made clear to the Portland Timbers. Whereas the West's top seed had no trouble dispatching their archrivals in the conference semifinals, a Real Salt Lake team that has become their nemesis is on the verge of ending their dream season, up two goals after one leg of the West's final.

If that dream ends in two weeks, Timbers fans will be forgiven for dwelling on Thursday's match, one in which they enjoyed the brief euphoria of holding a 3-0 (5-1, aggregate) edge over Seattle. After three goals in the leg's first 47 minutes, Portland had their season's defining, "this can't be happening" moment, one not even the most delusional Army member could have thought possible after last year's eighth place finish. Though two late Sounders goals calmed that euphoria, making the 5-3 aggregate look superficially respectful, Portland's win served as a clear rebuke. Three straight losses to the Timbers meant Seattle's Cascadia primacy had passed.

But thanks to the six-week misgiving that is this year's postseason schedule, Portland had no time to enjoy their success. Instead, the team that undermined their U.S. Open Cup run – the RSL team that hasn't lost to Portland since early 2011 - awaited in the conference final, giving Caleb Porter less than 48 hours to come up with the countermeasures that'd eluded him all season.

Fourteen minutes in, the Timbers looked to have the answers, Will Johnson's free kick beating an uncharacteristically porous Nick Rimando for the game's opening goal. From there, however, the game took on the same feel as Portland's previous visit to Rio Tinto – a 4-2, August 30 loss that marked their season's worst defensive performance. On Sunday, thanks to goals from Chris Schuler, Robbie Findley, Devon Sandoval and Javier Morales, Real Salt Lake matched that mark, with only a late header from Frederic Piquionne allowing Portland to exactly duplicate August's level of disappointment.

It was the third time this year Portland had lost in Sandy, leaving the Timbers winless in five against RSL in the Porter era. Now Portland's boss must find a way to not only break that streak but deliver the club's first two-goal victory over RSL. Without it, Portland will be reminded of the difference between nemeses and rivals. RF

Schuler's rise vindicates Lagerwey's offseason gamble

Sporting Kansas City have two defenders who could make this year's Best XI, but two weeks into the postseason, Matt Besler and Aurélien Collin have lost the distinction of being the playoff's best central tandem. Thanks to the emergence of Chris Schuler, Real Salt Lake's pair have taken that honor, with Schuler and Nat Borchers becoming the first tandem to see the Robbie Keane-Landon Donovan duo out of the postseason. In the process, Schuler showed all the qualities that convinced RSL to take a such a big chance on him almost one year ago.

Then, as RSL faced a cap-induced offseason rebuild, Garth Lagerwey elected to part with the veteran Colombian Jámison Olave, with the cornerstone to the franchise's defense allowed to depart for New York. Tall, athletic, comfortable on the ball and intuitive in defense, Schuler had drawn raves over the last two years, even if his backup's role left him with only 26 career starts. Yet with expectations the 26-year-old would earn national team attention, Lagerwey and head coach Jason Kreis seemed confident the St. Louis native would break out.

That breakout, however, was undermined by a mid-season foot injury, one that garnered 20-year-old defender Carlos Salcedo some early renown. Yet by the end of a season that limited Schuler to 16 starts, Real Salt Lake had their first choice pairing in place, Schuler's size and athleticism complementing the experience and reliability of Nat Borchers. With that duo in place over the team's final four regular season games, RSL only gave up two goals, success that continued through the team's conference semifinal against LA.

With Borchers as the duo's stabilizing presence, Schuler's developed a flare for the dramatic, whether it be his last-ditch clearance denying a Landon Donovan goal in Carson or his 102nd minute, leg two header that saw the two-time defending champions out of the playoffs (2-1, aggregate). After Sunday's goal against Portland, Schuler's becoming arguably the playoffs' most valuable performer, a status that's sure to undermine his relative anonymity. Though he didn't garner the attention Lagerway and Kreis expected him to receive during the season, Schuler's picked the ideal time to start flashing his national team credentials.

Even if he can't maintain this standard, Lagerwey's offseason decision has been vindicated. Thanks to Borchers' new partner, Olave hasn't been missed. And just as he did before Collin teamed with Besler, Kreis again has the league's best defensive tandem. RF

Scheduling stalemate

Last week I went on a riff about the madness of MLS playoffs scheduling. On Saturday the point was proved as Houston and Kansas City served up the sort of game that is all that tired minds and bodies are usually capable of: Lacklustre, lacking invention, and goals.

As Graham put it:

[The] Eastern Conference first leg between Sporting KC and Houston Dynamo was a war of attrition, in which two teams both succeeded in the noble aim of not losing, not letting the other team score and not making anyone smile.

It is hard to blame the two teams as the game came at the end of a breakneck rush through the playoffs:

And now they have two weeks with no games (unless they get a call from Jurgen Klinsmann and an opportunity to travel thousands of extra miles for USA's friendly internationals). 

Dominic Kinnear in particular adapted his strategy for the care of tired legs. Omar Cummings – super sub, late-scoring hero in the previous two games – was given a rare starting place. Will Bruin, who had played every minute of the playoffs, was withdrawn early. Houston had injury added to insult too, with the loss of Ricardo Clark.

Still, at least the teams now have that fortnight to recuperate. And the second leg ought to be a cracker. The Cauldron will provide a suitable atmosphere for sudden-death cup football.

SKC will feel fractionally the happier with the first leg result, having avoided defeat on the road. But this tie is still wide open. Houston won in New York last week and they have a playoffs hoodoo over KC, having knocked them out in the last two MLS Cup playoffs.

And, despite the grim nature of Saturday's first leg, the two teams still deserve full credit for their exertions in the previous round. Extra time thrillers both. More of that in the second leg, please. SB

Red Bulls carried out on their Shield

After Wednesday night's extra time defeat to Houston, the Red Bulls still couldn't quite believe their season had ended. The prevailing atmosphere in the locker room seemed to be puzzlement as much as hurt after New York had pummeled Houston for the majority of the second leg, only for the type of individual defensive error that has cost them all season to recur and send them out.

Arguably the tie was lost in Houston with the dismissal and subsequent suspension of Jamison Olave, as much as it was with the confidence sapping error that saw Sekagya set up Brad Davis for the equalizer in the second leg. Either way, the longer the game went on the more it seemed as if the cathartic Shield-winning game against Chicago had been a mirage, as the Red Bulls pressed urgently but raggedly for a winner, in a reprise of the ghost of Red Bull Arena playoffs past. 

Thierry Henry's sublime strike against Chicago had turned the game around and set his team on course for an emphatic victory, but in the playoffs his last minute bicycle kick cleared off Tally Hall's legs summed up a New York frustration in front of goal that seemed to become more of a self-fulfilling prophecy as the game went on and confidence ebbed.

This was the fourth straight home playoff defeat for New York, in a season that was supposed to have defied precedent with the arrival of a trophy. Speaking a couple of days later, general manager Jerome de Bontin was back on the front foot, telling me about how the team "feel like we are champions" for what they did in the regular season, and how it would be understood in the rest of the world.

But perhaps the more accurate reflection came from coach Mike Petke ruefully opening his post-game press conference with the remark that "maybe you can't exorcise all your demons in one season." It certainly felt at times in the run-in as if the grand narrative of New York's perennial quest for a trophy would overwhelm the momentum of an MLS Cup tilt, should they still be in line for the Shield late in the season. As others faltered and New York saw their chance, they seized it, and in doing so perhaps let go of a little bit of focus on the playoffs. After they allowed Houston back into the first game, it seemed as if a crucial momentum had gone.

So the Red Bulls won their shield, but in the end they were carried out on it, as once again their season ends in November. GP

Cosmos carry on Pelé's legacy

The New York Cosmos may not be back at the current apex of North American soccer, MLS, but they did reach as high as they can go in their current incarnation by winning the NASL Soccer Bowl on Saturday night, on the road at Atlanta Silverbacks.

After winning the fall season of NASL at a canter, the Cosmos took on Atlanta, the spring champions, in the Championship decider. There has been a little bit of sniping about this from other teams and supporters, as they pointed out that the newly revived Cosmos had not had to deal with any fatigue over two halves of the season, and therefore had a much easier task than others in reaching the final. But such complaints tend to neglect the fact that head coach Gio Savarese had to assemble a team from scratch over the past year — the moving parts of which were still coming together during a pre-season summer tour to London.

Savarese did so by looking for players who were "comfortable on the ball" and that's perhaps reflected in the fact that in their early games there was no single source of goals, yet several players were chipping in from midfield and getting results. They got noticeably stronger and more cohesive as the short season went on, and were good value for their win. 

One of those midfielders, and the closest the club has to a star, former Spanish international Marco Senna, got the goal that won the Cosmos the Soccer Bowl — the only goal of the game in fact, in the 50th minute. 

As he celebrated among the small band of Cosmos fans who'd made the journey down to Atlanta, a giant cut out of Pelé's head could be seen brandished in the background of the crowd. 

That's the legacy that today's Cosmos have wrestled with embracing and escaping — there's a discreetly acknowledged sense within the organization that their sentimental lure with a certain generation of US soccer fan and certain consumer niche of soccer hipster will only carry them so far. But a contemporary team winning in style and adding a sixth Soccer Bowl to that collection amassed by Pele et al, gives them the chance to define themselves within a genuine sporting continuum.

Like the Red Bulls, the Cosmos are in a hearts and minds battle for fans before NYCFC enter the fray in the city. Both existing teams have now won trophies this season to put the arrivistes on notice. And both, in different ways, have done so despite the weight of the past. GP