Two weeks ago, the Timbers walked into the Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah and smacked Salt Lake 4-1. The return fixture, played on a brilliant Sunday fall afternoon at Providence Park, played out much the same way. The Timbers took an early lead, withstood a flurry of RSL pressure, and pulled away in style.
Larrys Mabiala, Diego Chara, and Sebastian Blanco got the goals, Steve Clark got a fabulously well-earned clean sheet, and the Timbers clinched their postseason ticket with a spare in the 2018 regular season playing their best soccer since the conclusion of their 15-game unbeaten run back at the beginning of August.
The Timbers, despite the quality of their recent form, are still likely headed for a road Wild Card game. But it's fair to say that at this rate, no team, even the Seattle Sounders, will be eager to see them a week-and-a-half from now.
This is a team that has its mojo back. Giovani Savarese's decision to dust off the 4-2-3-1 starting with the game in Salt Lake two weeks ago appears to have cured much of what ailed the Timbers throughout the late summer and early fall.
They weren't overpowering in this game, but they were organized and effective in defense and midfield and, as has been their wont all year, ruthless in transition.
It was far too much for a bedraggled, frustrated Real Salt Lake group, who arrived in Portland to play their last regular season game knowing that a win would clinch their return to the playoffs and anything but would open the door for the LA Galaxy to end their season with a win over Houston next weekend.
They were in trouble from the very beginning.
Diego Valeri broke through the Salt Lake back line and forced a fine save out of Nick Rimando after less than 20 seconds, before center backs Justin Glad and Marcelo Silva committed a series of unforced turnovers as the visitors struggled mightily to hold onto the ball.
With just under a quarter of an hour played, Kyle Beckerman hacked down Chara in midfield and gave the Timbers a free kick from a shade under 30 yards. Diego Valeri sent it towards the back post, where Larrys Mabiala barreled past Silva and swept the ball past Rimando on his near side to give the Timbers the lead.
It was a excellent delivery from Valeri, but more a case of Mabiala simply overpowering his opposing center back. Salt Lake settled in somewhat after the goal, but, for the vast majority of the half, got almost no traction going forward.
They finally got a clean look at the very end of the first half, on their very first corner, when Beckerman stung Joao Plata's delivery, but he sent it right at Clark in goal. The teams broke for the halftime interval with the Timbers leading by a goal and still largely waiting to see if Salt Lake could find a second gear.
With LA leading Minnesota 1-0 at halftime, RSL needed to drastically raise its intensity and attacking ambition — and as the Timbers sat deeper trying to protect their lead, they began to get their chances.
The problem for them was that Clark, starting for the Timbers for the fifth time with Jeff Attinella still working his way back from a shoulder injury, was in the midst of his best MLS performance for some three years.
Several minutes after his big chance, Plata swung a corner that was knocked down right in the goalmouth directly to Glad — who volleyed it towards the upper corner, only to see Clark make a spectacular reaction save to push it over.
On the hour mark, RSL got another chance off of a corner and was stoned again, this time on a first time strike from Albert Rusnak that Clark parried away.
The saves, in and of themselves, were hugely important moments in the game. But they were also important in that longer Salt Lake went without finding the equalizer, the greater their chances of being impaled by a Timbers counter became.
And sure enough, with just over 20 minutes to go, Chara called game.
The decisive play started with a terrific piece of holdup play on a long ball from Jeremy Ebobisse, who has clearly established himself as the club's starting striker.
Ebobisse got the ball wide to Sebastian Blanco, isolated against Glad, who waited as Chara burst forward from out of the play, flew past Beckerman and Sunny, got into the box by himself, touched Blanco's centering pass around Rimando, and tapped it in.
It was vintage Chara — an absolute explosion of a run and a calm finish, a final bullet in an MVP case that everyone in and around MLS should familiarize themselves with and appreciate.
That was the end of RSL. The Timbers had several more chances to tack onto their lead in the closing stages, and it was Blanco, the Supporters' Player of the Year, who would convert with a quite lovely assist going the way of substitute Lucas Melano.
It was the exclamation point on a very fine afternoon's work. Salt Lake could still back their way into the postseason if the Galaxy fail to beat the Dynamo next Sunday, but their chances of playing on are slim. Petke called them "one in a million" postgame.
It was the right assessment. RSL struggled mightily on the road all season, but they finished Sunday looking every bit a beaten team — having been outscored 7-1 in the two most important games of their season.
Beckerman, never one to handle his frustration gracefully, ended his year in inimitable style: refusing to shake Savarese's hand, swearing at him, and then slapping away the hand of his former RSL, now Timbers assistant coach Miles Joseph.
At 36 and aging quickly, the former U.S. midfielder's future in Salt Lake is unclear. This objectively atrocious performance — one successful tackle all afternoon long — won't help his negotiating position in the offseason in any way.
He was small. So were the rest of Salt Lake's biggest players. The Timbers' big players, in comparison, showed up. They look right now like a playoff team, and in a system where form is so vitally important heading into the postseason, they're in a good spot.
The same, of course, could be said for Seattle — the club that the Timbers would play if the season ended now instead of a week from today. But what seems clear, which wasn't clear several weeks ago, is that the Timbers have reason to believe that they can play with and beat anyone when it counts.
In this roller coaster of a season, things are looking up at the exact right time.