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Portland Timbers
Riding a two-game winning streak, back in their favorite road venue, the Portland Timbers entered Saturday night's meeting with Real Salt Lake in a positive frame of mind.

They left it in one, too. Steve Clark saved a first half penalty, Sebastian Blanco opened the scoring, and Diego Valeri closed it to give the Timbers yet another win over RSL and their third straight road victory — extending a turnaround that, given how they started the season, is nothing short of remarkable.

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Three weeks ago, the Timbers were sitting on one point and one of the worst goal differentials in the league. Now, they look like they haven't skipped a beat since last winter.

In other words, the Timbers look like themselves again. And with just three more road games on the slate before they finish with 17 of their final 22 at Providence Park, that is an altogether terrifying prospect for the rest of the Western Conference.

This trip to Utah would have been an excellent opportunity regardless. The Timbers tattooed RSL, 4-1 in Sandy and then 3-0 in Portland, in back-to-back games at the height of the Western Conference playoff race last October, and had only lost at the Rio Tinto Stadium once in their previous five visits.

The Timbers started this trip in what has become familiar fashion, sitting deep defensively and taking their time working themselves into play. The game thus started slowly, with little meaningful action in its first interval.

Then, out of nothing, midway through the half, RSL found themselves with a chance to take the lead when Jefferson Savarino cross struck the arm of Zarek Valentin at high speed inside the Timbers' penalty area. Referee Ramy Touchan missed it in real time, but, after the benefit of a video review, pointed to the spot.

RSL's Slovakian playmaker Albert Rusnak stepped up and struck the penalty low and hard towards the left corner, but Steve Clark — preferred to Jeff Attinella in goal for the Timbers for a second straight match — read it, got down, and made an absolutely tremendous save.

For Clark, who had his best game as a Timber against Real Salt Lake in Portland last fall, it was a highlight-reel — and, sure enough, it'd have a ripple effect. Not ten minutes later, after creating virtually nothing for the first half hour of the game, the Timbers took the lead.

Diego Valeri dropped a little pass back to Sebastian Blanco on top of the penalty area. Blanco collected the ball, thought about a shot with two RSL defenders converging on him, then took the shot, saw Salt Lake's reserve goalkeeper Andrew Putna block it straight back into his path, and blasted in the rebound.

It wasn't particularly impressive defending from RSL, nor goalkeeping from Putna, and you might have expected better. After he torched them for three goals and a pair of assists in the two games last year, few clubs should know more intimately that you can't give Blanco an inch and live to tell the tale.

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Portland Timbers
The Timbers, as a result, took a lead into halftime — more than happy to sit in defensively, make life difficult for RSL's attackers, and seek out transition chances. For the first quarter hour of the second half, they weren't threatened.

But just past the hour mark, a lovely little flick from Corey Baird finally unlocked the Timbers' stout zone 14 defense — a flick that gave Sam Johnson the briefest clean look at Clark's goal, which he used, while falling to the ground, to muscle a shot off the post and in to tie the game.

That goal might have changed the dynamic of the evening entirely. Instead, as if toying with a little brother, the Timbers simply came right back down the field, and re-took the lead.

This time, while Blanco was involved, it was his compatriot Valeri whose sniffed out the goal in inimitable fashion: pouncing on a deflected Blanco shot bouncing loose in the box and arrowing a first-time shot through traffic and into the corner.

It was a spellbinding strike — through the legs of a sliding Nick Besler and then through the legs of a standing Justin Glad before kissing the far side netting — and one well worthy of vaulting the Maestro into MLS's exclusive 70-70 club.

Salt Lake had been level for just six minutes, and, though Mike Petke threw on both Brooks Lennon and Joao Plata in the pursuit of an equalizer, they'd fail to get so much as another clear-cut chance.

The Timbers, rather neatly, steered themselves to the finish line. Once again, their quality in the boxes was decisive. Once again, the likes of Bill Tuiloma and Cristhian Paredes were impressive. And, once again, Giovani Savarese's first compliment was to his group, the collective, for putting its "heart into the match."

Petke, never one to mince words, said after the game that his team wasn't "clean enough on the ball tonight, we didn’t play forward soccer, [and] we didn’t break lines."

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He was right. Salt Lake were, in a way, outclassed. The margins weren't big, and Clark's penalty save loomed large in the final reckoning, but RSL's inability to dictate the terms of the game, at home, was telling nonetheless. They lacked the inventiveness needed to break the Timbers down going forward, and they weren't nearly ruthless enough to shut them down at the back.

It was the kind of night that illustrated very clearly why Portland been a cut above much of the rest of the league for the last several years, and why they might be, despite all appearances to the contrary through mid-April, again this season.

A handful of difference-makers, an effective cast around them, and a strong, competitive mentality behind them. That's the ticket for this team. It's still too much for Salt Lake — and it has them back on the right track at just the right time.