It is well understood that, three years ago, the Portland Timbers' MLS Cup run began in earnest with a formation change and an unexpected October victory at Real Salt Lake in the third-to-last game of the regular season.
What happened on Saturday night in Sandy, then, felt awfully familiar. The Timbers, buoyed by a needed formation change, walloped RSL 4-1 in the third-to-last game of the season — all but locking up a playoff bid and launching themselves into contention for a top two finish in the Western Conference.
This very likely isn't the beginning of a championship run — though stranger things have happened over the years in MLS — but it is by some distance, considering the stakes, the performance of the Timbers' season so far.
Entering this game, Portland hadn't won on the road since June. They hadn't scored four goals all year. What happened? The story of this match, more so than most others, started with the respective managers and their tactical choices.
After watching the 4-3-2-1 and 4-4-2 diamond fall flat in recent weeks, Giovani Savarese finally decided to line the Timbers up in their tried and true 4-2-3-1 — a staple of Caleb Porter's teams, and, however little it has been used this year, the formation that the group of players he inherited is most familiar with.
It was the obvious call, and, without question, the right one too. Especially as the game progressed, the Timbers were better spaced and better balanced than they've been in months.
Andy Polo, playing wide instead of centrally, was a particular beneficiary of the switch. So too was David Guzman, who turned in one of his cleanest and most effective performances of the season. For a night at least, for those two and and their team, everything finally clicked back into place.
Before that would become apparent, though, the game started methodically. There wasn't a clear cut chance for the majority of the first half.
That changed with just over a half hour gone, when Sebastian Blanco picked up the ball in the right channel after a tight bit of interplay between Diego Chara and Zarek Valentin, drove forward, and bent a sublime pass across the face of goal — where Jeremy Ebobisse, at full stretch, redirected it past Nick Rimando.
It was a superb setup from Blanco, who was so sorely missed in last weekend's scoreless draw against Dallas, and an instinctive finish from the second year forward — who, getting another opportunity with Samuel Armenteros battling an illness, was turning in a tenacious performance.
The Timbers had the lead going into the break, and nearly doubled it just three minutes after the restart when a Polo cross found Blanco free on the corner of the six yard box, but his shot was smothered by an onrushing Rimando.
Then, several minutes later, a strange sequence unfolded when Guzman was shoved to the ground by the ever irascible Kyle Beckerman as RSL took a corner that ended up with Steve Clark pushing a long shot awkwardly onto the top of the crossbar.
Beckerman, who was sent off at Providence Park in both 2016 and 2017, easily could have been shown his first red card of the season. Instead, his team got another corner — and, in the following sequence, found an equalizer.
That goal came when Jefferson Savarino played a quick pass to Joao Plata on the right wing, and darted into the box to receive the ball back, losing Andy Polo, taking one touch inside, and sending a frozen rope of a shot curling into the far corner.
The next ten minutes could have, and maybe should have, turned the game in RSL's favor. They dominated after their goal, with neither Valentin nor Jorge Villafaña able to harness Savarino or Plata on the wings, but they couldn't force home a second goal.
With 20 minutes to play, Blanco made them pay.
Holding the ball in midfield, the Argentinian winger tried to play a chip over the top for Diego Valeri — only to see it cut out by Justin Glad, at which point Blanco took off after the clearance, brought it down ahead of two RSL midfielders, pushed it into the box, dragged it wide, and smashed it off of the far post and in.
Rimando didn't get close to it. This was vintage Blanco — a step quicker and a whole lot hungrier than anyone else around him — backed by as certain a finish as you'll see this year. The goal gave the Timbers the lead back at 2-1, and marked the beginning of the end for Salt Lake.
Three minutes later, Valeri received a pass from Valentin, turned towards the middle of the field, played a one-two with Ebobisse, and slipped the ball into the path of the oncoming Blanco — who opened his hips and swept it over Rimando and into the far corner with his first touch.
It was another sensational finish, celebrated by its architect along with the entirety of the Timbers bench by nearside the corner flag, but the buildup was equally impressive: the kind of fluid, intricate, athletic attacking play that Porter's teams so often produced out of similar setups.
For RSL, there was time to suffer just one more indignity. Two minutes to the end of normal time, former Timbers first round pick Nick Besler tried to pick out Rimando with a throw-in — only to see it intercepted by Lucas Melano, who dinked it away from the veteran goalkeeper and tapped it into an empty net.
With that, it was over. The three-goal margin of victory matched the Timbers' biggest of the season and Salt Lake's worst home loss since May of 2017. Form wise, it was a shocking result.
And yet on the day, it made plenty of sense. The Timbers looked themselves. They weren't always in command, but they were able, in stark contrast to their opposition, to maintain their composure. Thanks in large part to Blanco, they reaped the rewards.
Salt Lake, on the other hand, pretty well imploded. Petke acknowledged that he got the tactics wrong postgame. Both of his leaders, Beckerman and Rimando, could have been sent off, and the young group around them lost their shape on both ends as the second half progressed.
RSL is now locked squarely in a battle with the LA Galaxy for the West's sixth and final playoff spot now, and they're going to need to grow up in a hurry between now and the end of the month if they want to ensure their return to the postseason.
The Timbers no longer have that particular concern. They're going to be in the playoffs — and they just might have found the formula that will allow them do some damage once they get there.