As the Portland Timbers take the field against Real Salt Lake in the second leg of the Western Conference Final tomorrow night at Jeld-Wen Field the Timbers will already be down two goals. With two weeks off since the first leg, the Timbers have had ample time to prepare for the match and get ready to take the game to RSL.
This match will be a trying task for the Timbers, one that will require them to find their best form of an already excellent season if they want to advance.
If there is any time for the Timbers to draw energy and strength from their fans at Jeld-Wen Field, it is now. The Timbers went 11-1-5 in Portland this year, outscoring their opponents by an average of one and a quarter goals each game (or almost two goals in each win). Unfortunately, two of those five ties at Jeld-Wen have been against Real Salt Lake this year. Both were performances that the Timbers could have won had they not given up a stoppage time equalizer in the teams' first 3-3 meeting in Portland this year or if they had put away one of their chances in the second metting, a 0-0 draw.
For both of those matches Diego Valeri, a Newcomer of the Year candidate and MLS MVP snub, played a crucial part for the Timbers as he pulled the strings of the attack. Valeri has been struggling with an adductor strain, or sports hernia depending on who you ask, that has limited his contributions recently. However, despite the Timbers' desire to get back to it and play their return leg against RSL, the extra week off between matches forced by last weekend's international dates may have been just what Valeri needed to push through the majority of the match and regain some of his early and mid-season form that saw him rack up double digit assists and goals. Valeri will play, but Diego Valeri for 90' is much better than Diego Valeri for 53'.
While the Timbers press forward and try to make up their current deficit, they will need to rely on their center-backs to hold down the back line and deal effectively with the RSL counterattack. Pa Modou Kah and Futty Danso are both coming off of difficult breaks, although for vastly different reasons. Kah has been playing through the playoffs with a rib injury, one that has limited his activities in practice during the break between games. Porter has insisted that Kah is ready to go, but matching up against a potential forward pairing of Devon Sandoval and Robbie Findley, both of whom are quick and physical, will be difficult under even ideal circumstances.
The challenges that face Futty as the Timbers once again take to the field are more mental. After several bad mistakes in the last match, Futty readily took the blame for the Timbers' loss on himself. He will need to bounce back and show that he is up to the task of shutting down RSL in exactly the situations that he stumbled in during the first leg.
Real Salt Lake
RSL come to town in an enviable position. Up 2-0 RSL will need to lock down their defense and take the game to the Timbers with quick, incisive breaks down the pitch. Unfortunately for the Timbers, that is exactly what RSL specialize in and what they have used time and time again to take the Timbers apart this year.
If RSL have one weakness that the Timbers can exploit this weekend, it may be the loss of Chris Wingert. A longtime top left-back in MLS, the loss of Wingert will force RSL to fill his spot with a face familiar to Timbers fans, Lovel Palmer. Palmer has filled in ably for Salt Lake this season and gives a more attacking look to RSL from the fullback position. If Palmer does get forward into the attack then space could be opened up for the Timbers to attack through with Darlington Nagbe attacking down the right wing. A more likely scenario is that Palmer will be use more like a man-marking defensive midfielder and attempt to take Nagbe out of the game, a tactic that RSL have used before against the Timbers. In that case it will be up to Jack Jewsbury to get forward and send dangerous crosses into the box.
The other major loss for RSL in this leg is Alvaro Saborio, who did not travel to Portland. There has been some debate over at RSL Soapbox as to whether RSL are a better team without Saborio, but his scoring rate cannot be ignored as he put away 12 goals in extremely limited minutes this year. Instead, RSL will probably run out Devon Sandoval. A tall and strong rookie with surprising foot-skills, Sandoval only scored three times during the regular season for RSL, but stepped up in the first leg against the Timbers where he scored RSL's third goal of the night. Although he is not a player who will typically create his own chances, when paying alongside the speedy Robbie Findley or tricky Joao Plata, Sandoval is a strong target forward.
The Timbers can do this, but it is a long shot. The Timbers have scored multiple goals against RSL three times this year, but they have yet to put that attacking record together with a solid defensive performance. It will be hard, and tense, and may come down to a penalty shoot-out against Nick Rimando, one of the most effective penalty kick stoppers in MLS, but it is possible and one way or another it will be a game that you do not want to miss.
First Leg: 4-2 RSL
Watch it on: ESPN
Kick off: 6:00 pm at Jeld Wen Field
Portland Timbers: 1st Seed in the Western Conference (57 points)
Real Salt Lake: 2nd Seed in the Western Conference (56 points)