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Sandy • Rushing Robbie Russell on that cold Seattle night four years ago was a team that learned to win on the fly. A blend of veterans and talented newcomers and unproven youngsters raised the 2009 MLS Cup as champions. When Russell's penalty kick hit corner pocket, Real Salt Lake set out on its course as a team to be considered a threat every season.
In the seasons since, RSL has been a staple in the Western Conference playoffs, qualifying each year and making the Western Conference final now twice. Sunday night's second-leg match against the Portland Timbers at Jeld-Wen Field puts RSL 90 minutes from another final.
And RSL has certainly been a thorn in the side of the No. 1-seeded Timbers this season and in seasons past. In 10 previous meetings, RSL is 6-1-3 against Portland. Jeld-Wen Field doesn't scare RSL, either, as it is 1-1-2 all time in downtown Portland, having earned two draws there this season.
Which has raised the question of whether RSL's combination of veteran presence and influx of young talent has a the experience card in their back pocket against a Timbers team making its MLS playoff debut in 2013?
Captain Kyle Beckerman doesn't think so.
"Not a lot of us had experience in 2009," he said, "and we went and won against a team [L.A.] who had won before."
It's been two weeks since RSL's 4-2 win over the Timbers, a display that showcased two sides that aren't willing to shy away from being the aggressor and wanting to impose, Kreis said.
"I think we're really ready for this game," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "When you think about a game for this long, one thing should be for sure: You should be hungry and ready to play."
Protecting a two-goal lead against a conference rival on the road is a dish RSL has been served before, and defender Nat Borchers said the genesis of advancing will be thinking of playing 90 minutes.
"You just have to respect your opponent and realize you're playing against a very good team in Portland, who has not gotten very many poor results at home," he said.
It's been reiterated that RSL has to approach the match as if it's tied, as if that 4-2 win at Rio Tinto Stadium on Nov. 10 shouldn't necessarily hold weight on how it approaches a Portland side in need of two regulation-time goals.
"We match up well against them, they match up well against us," said goalkeeper Nick Rimando. "What's more important is, we're going to out there and try and score, too. We're not going to sit back and let them just try and attack us."
The situation awaiting RSL isn't an easy one, but Kreis said he's "extremely grateful" for the way the team was built this year, and it will come into play with the absence of veterans Alvaro Saborio and Chris Wingert due to injury.
"Our guys have been through just about every scenario," Kreis said. "I think we have the exact right mix of veteran talent and youthful exuberance to hopefully get the right result in Portland."
A result that could get RSL back to the MLS Cup.
Real Salt Lake at Timbers
O Western Conference final, Leg 2
At Jeld-Wen Field (Portland, Ore.)
Kickoff • Sunday, 7 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN
Radio • 700 AM
Last meeting • RSL 4, Portland 2 (Leg 1, Nov. 10)
About RSL • Needing just a one-goal victory, RSL and Portland will play two 15-minute extra time periods if the teams are tied on aggregate goals at the end of regulation Sunday. … RSL is 3-0-2 against Portland in 2013 in all competitions. … Unbeaten in its last nine matches in all competitions against Portland, RSL is 6-1-3 against the Timbers all-time. … Both Alvaro Saborio (hip flexor) and Chris Wingert (broken rib) will miss the second leg of the Western Conference final.
About Portland • One of the best home sides in MLS, Portland is 14-1-5 at Jeld-Wen Field in 2013, having lost the second match of the season to Montreal 2-1 in March. … Frederic Piquionne's stoppage-time header in the first leg of the Western Conference final proved to give Portland some vital life heading into leg two of the series. … The only time the Timbers have defeated RSL was in a 1-0 contest at Jeld-Wen on April 30, 2011.