Sporting KC or Real Salt Lake will head to this year’s Western Conference Championship. Their awaiting opponents, the Portland Timbers, only want one winner.
They would never say it. Professional sports teams and players are far too well-versed in the pitfalls of poor PR to ever do so. But if you were to ask for a frank response, most of the Portland Timbers players, coaches and affiliates would say that there is only one team they want to see in the Western Conference Championship.
After an enthralling night with drama, controversy, uncertainty and ultimately a penalty shootout, the Timbers are already in the Western final. They are hoping for another MLS Cup final and await their challenger.
That will be determined on Sunday when Sporting Kansas City host Real Salt Lake. After a 1-1 draw in the first leg, this second edition is finely balanced. Sporting KC will fancy themselves. They have the away goal, the support of being at home, and the comfort of being the best team in the West during the regular season. But Salt Lake are far from out of this.
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And the Timbers will be supporting the less-fancied sixth seed. They would not ever publicly admit it. But they for sure believe it because that is what offers them the best chance of making it to the MLS Cup.
That may sound harsh on RSL. They are a dangerous team that has worked extremely hard to get to this stage. And Mike Petke has done a terrific job that should be praised and respected around the league. But it would be rather foolish to suggest that they pose the same threat as KC.
To put their relative qualities into context, RSL amassed 49 points in the regular season. They only squeezed into the playoffs because LA Galaxy bottled it on the final day. KC won the West with 62 points, 13 more than their opponents on Sunday. But that only tells half the story.
RSL had a goal differential — which is often a more accurate measure of how good a team actually is, rather than the points achieved — of -3. They scored just 55 goals and conceded a concerning 58. Sporting KC, with 65 goals scored and just 40 goals conceded, bettered both tallies considerably.
Moreover, the difference in the quality of players available to each manager is quite stark. Daniel Salloi, Johnny Russell, Ike Opara and Roger Espinoza are some of the best players in their position in the whole of MLS. RSL cannot boast the same wealth and depth of riches.
This is not meant as a slight to Salt Lake either. They are a very good, well-drilled, disciplined and dangerous team. I am sure they would cause the Timbers problems. But in the two regular seasons against Portland, Petke’s side lost 4-1 and 3-0. KC, on the other hand, drew one and won the other, not conceding a goal in either.
The Portland Timbers are awaiting either Sporting Kansas City or Real Salt Lake. They may never say, but there is only one team that they want to face.