The Portland Timbers faced Real Salt Lake six times in 2013 and came away with two semi-final eliminations, four losses, and two draws. This year, the Timbers are six games into their season and still without a win as they head to Sandy, Utah today to take on undefeated RSL for the first time this year. The odds are not in their favor, but a victory over the team that stifled them at every turn last season would be just what is needed to recapture the team's fighting spirit.
The Timbers have been plagued by an inability to put together, as Caleb Porter says, a "complete game" in 2014. Whether they are giving up points late after putting a good performance early on, making costly defensive errors, wiffing on golden scoring chances, or just having a key call go against them, the Timbers have not been able to put it all together this season.
Against the Seattle Sounders two weeks ago it looked like the Timbers had finally started to put things together on the offensive end of the pitch, scoring four goals on a team that had, up until that point, looked solid at the back. Two of the goals came from the most unexpected source on the team, Diego Chara (some would have picked Donovan Ricketts to score before him), but he was joined on the scoresheet by Diego Valeri and Maximiliano Urruti, two players who will need to be regular contributors there if the Timbers are going to have a successful season. The Sounders, however, famously pegged the Timbers back for four goals of their own, exposing some very lax defending and prompting a switch in the center of the pitch.
The next week, with the back line of Futty Danso and Pa Modou Kah, "The Great Wall of Gambia", reunited, the Timbers looked like they would be able to grab their first shutout of the season as they faced off against Chivas USA. After an early goal from Will Johnson, another player that the Timbers will need to contribute at a similar clip to 2013, the Timbers found themselves under siege in the second half. With the Goats pouring on the pressure, the Timbers looked like they would absorb it and come away with a 1-0 victory, like they did so often last year. Instead, thanks to a moment of miscommunication and inattentiveness, Chivas found the equalizer and were able to claim the 1-1 draw. The Timbers threw numbers forward until the final whistle, but were unable to get the go-ahead goal.
In both cases, the Timbers had the makings of a stellar performance only to have it come undone in the final minutes of the match. The ability to press the game for a full 90' and the never-say-die mentality that made the Timbers so formidable last season, and that carried them through some of the team's lesser performances, just has not been there this year. To recapture that spirit, the Timbers will need to play like they have something to prove.
The Timbers will continue to miss Steve Zakuani this week as he recovers from a tight hamstring and will need to turn to Kalif Alhassan, who was outstanding against Seattle and good against Chivas, to provide their width on the wing. The rest of the team remains healthy with the exception of Rodney Wallace, who is nearing a return from the ACL tear that he suffered against RSL in the playoffs.
Real Salt Lake
The only undefeated team remaining in MLS, RSL has gotten off to a surprisingly slow start to the season. With a record of two wins and four draws, RSL has had a similar start to the season to the Timbers. Both teams had been slated for greatness this year, but where the bounces have not gone the way of the Timbers, for RSL things have fallen into place.
For RSL, key players have stepped up early in the season and few are more key than Alvaro Saborio. Through six games, Saborio leads the RSL attack with three goals and, with six goals against the Timbers in regular season play alone, Portland will do well to be wary of him. Of course, the Timbers' traditional weakness, defendign crosses and free kicks, is where Saborio thrives, so limiting those will go a long way toward putting the Timbers in a position to get a point or three tomorrow.
Of course, RSL are no less deadly in the center of the park, where Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman pull the strings. The pair have been at the top of the league for a long time now and, with a combined two goals and four assists in 2014, are not going anywhere just yet. At 32 and 34, Beckerman and Morales should be slowing down, but despite getting up there in soccer-years the pair are still the driving force behind RSL's long-term success.
In goal, RSL will likely be missing the services of perennial all-star Nick Rimando, who has missed the last two matches thanks to knee injury suffered with the USMNT. In his place we will likely see Jeff Antinella, who has filled in over the last two games for RSL, logging one shutout.
Timbers Keys to the Match
- Shut down Saborio. RSL has plenty of weapons that can hurt teams, but none have been such a consistant threat to the Timbers as Saborio.
- Play the full 90'. The Timbers have given up four goals in the final fifteen minutes of matches this year and three more in the fifteen minute period before that.
- Create chances from the wings. Darlington Nagbe looked great against Chivas USA. Unfortunately, he did not have a single shot. Just one year after he set a new personal record with nine goals in a season, Nagbe needs to be not only creating chances for his teammates, but for himself as well.
Watch it on: KPTV
Kickoff: 6:30 PM Pacific at Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, UT
Portland Timbers: 0-2-4, 4 points, 8th place in the Western Conference
Real Salt Lake: 2-0-4, 10 points, 4th place in the Western Conference