Tomorrow, for the third time in the month of August, the Portland Timbers are slated to take on Real Salt Lake. August has been a defining month for both teams so far this season and and a win in this game could be the capstone holding the rest of the season together for either team.
Here is what you need to know about the two teams:
The Timbers came into August highly rated but looking to prove themselves against the strongest competition in MLS. Success would mean a spot at the top of the table and failure a plunge back into the middle off the tightly contested playoff race in the Western Conference. To date, the Timbers have taken five points from four matches this August, on track to be the team's worst performance in the month since joining MLS after earning ten points in six games in 2011 and eight points in five games in 2012.
Of course, neither of those years had to contend with quite the same glut of injuries and suspensions that the Timbers have run across this year. For this game the Timbers will likely be without Will Johnson (shoulder), Jack Jewsbury (ankle), Frederic Piquionne (ankle), and Pa Modou Kah (yellow card accumulation). That is, of course, only the players who have been available in the last month; the longer term injuries for the Timbers include Mikael Silvestre (knee), David Horst (knee), Brent Richards (knee), Bright Dike (knee), Dylan Tucker-Gangnes (concussion). Oh, but don't forget Ben Zemanski (???) and Futty Danso (foot), both of whom are just now returning from injuries of their own, and Diego Chara (yellow card accumulation) who is returning to the lineup after serving out his suspension.
Thanks to all of that mess, the Timbers' turnover at the back will continue this week as Andrew Jean-Baptiste should expect to be paired up with midseason acquisition Rauwshan McKenzie at centerback. McKenzie, who should probably be worried about getting the starting position withe Timbers going through centerbacks like Spınal Tap goes through drummers, is still something of a mystery to Timbers fans, having seen plenty of time on the bench since joining the team but not yet making his league debut with the team. A versatile player, McKenzie has shown his strong ball winning and positioning skills with the Timbers reserves and in the Open Cup, although his lack of height could leave the Timbers even more open to set pieces than they are already.
Although the defense is still in a state of flux, the Timbers midfield will see a return to normalcy this game with Ben Zemanski and Diego Chara holding down the center of the pitch. Although they are not the Timbers first choice pairing, they have been paired up several times this season and seen some success with Zemanski, a more defensively minded player, shielding the defense and Chara simply being unleashed to win the ball and get forward in a more box-to-box role.
Our expected Timbers line-up: Alvas Powell; Ben Zemanski, Diego Chara; , .; , , ,
Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake are still the MLS frontrunners with 45 points on the season, but there are several teams with a real chance of catching them including Portland, the Seattle Sounders, the LA Galaxy, and the Montreal Impact with only wins from their games in hand. A win at home against Portland would widen the game and eliminate Portland from contention for the Supporters' Shield, barring a massive letdown at the end of the season. It would also be a serious statement from an RSL side that many thought could be slipping over the last month. If there was a slide at all from RSL, it was stopped in their 3-3 draw in Portland two weeks ago, and reversed with last week's 4-0 win over the Columbus Crew.
Currently, the only real question in RSL's lineup is the presence of commanding attacking presence Alvorio Saborio. Saborio has, in only twelve matches this year, scored nine times and assisted twice, giving him the highest strike rate in the league. Fortunately for the Timbers, who have struggled to contain RSL's attack this season, Saborio is coming off an injury and is only 50/50 for this game, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Saborio could be particularly dangerous this game with many of the Timbers' be aerial defenders unavailable, so his absence would be a great benefit to Portland.
Of course, RSL is not without other attacking threats. In RSL's visit to Portland two weeks ago, they ran out a forward line consisting of Robbie Findley and Joao Plata, a speedy pairing that gave the Timbers' defense all sorts of trouble. Despite that, the backline of AJB and PMK were able to keep them off the board. Instead, RSL managed a penalty kick and two scrappy goals that came indirectly from free kicks conceded around the box. The Timbers will be more than capable of containing the forward line of RSL, but the rest of the team, including attacking midfielder Javier Morales, could give them trouble.
After practice today, Caleb Porter noted that this match is not going to decide the Timbers season. They could win here and still miss the playoffs or then could lose and win the MLS Cup. He is right. Still, a win here is possible and could be a huge confidence booster for the Timbers as they continue to miss some of the team's vital contributors.
Watch it on: NBC Sports Network
Kick off: 7:00 pm at Rio Tinto Stadium
Portland Timbers: 39 points, 4th place in the Western Conference.
Real Salt Lake: 45 points, 1st place in the Western Conference.