It's been seven weeks since the Portland Timbers played Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium. At the time, the home side had yet to lose and the visitors were winless. While those streaks have both come to an end, there remains a nine-point gap between RSL and Portland heading into Saturday night's game. And yet, due to the absences of several key players thanks to the World Cup, RSL has struggled over its past three games. To help figure out just which team the Timbers will be facing this weekend we turned to SB Nation's Salt Lake blog, RSL Soapbox, for answers. Randal Serr gave us a few minutes to explain:
1. In a season with only a single blemish, RSL has not had the best run of three games leading up to Saturday's encounter at Rio Tinto Stadium. Is it all down to national team absences?
RSL's recent form is not due solely to the absences of their national team call-ups, although that definitely has something to do with it. RSL is lacking proven firepower up front with Alvaro Saborio, Joao Plata, and Robbie Findley all either injured or unavailable over this stretch. On top of that a schedule with four games in two weeks, two of which are on the road, will always present some challenges. In the better part of three of those four games, RSL was missing five of it's best six players in my opinion. While RSL fans will never be satisfied with anything less than a win, whatever sort of results they can gather over this run of games will be valuable and hard-earned.
2. Most teams who play midweek and weekend don't get a Wednesday (away)-Saturday (home) deal. Just how difficult will it be for RSL to turn around and play again so soon?
Head coach Jeff Cassar stated that when the season began and they saw this cluster of games including the cross-country travel that they circled it on the calendar because it would be the toughest stretch of the season. So yes, it is a difficult turnaround. But when RSL are at home, they are comfortable and typically tend to play better and have more chances on goal. The coaching staff has done a good job of rotating players over the past few matches with an eye on this last game before the break to have their best players available at home. For example, Plata probably could have put in a handful of minutes against Columbus as a sub, but they instead opted to preserve him for the home game against Portland. Schuler, the key to RSL's defense, did not feature against Seattle Sounders. So RSL should be just fine.
3. RSL allowed 534 passes and 60% possession to an average Columbus Crew team that only featured Federico Higuain for the first half. Is that a harbinger for similar struggles against a Portland team that prefers to keep the ball, or a one-off?
More than anything it was a one-off, primarily because RSL played a different formation straying from their proven diamond midfield with two strikers up top. They also had a few players on the field that have not seen more than a few games on the field in an RSL jersey. Portland plays a very similar style to RSL and the possession battle is always fun to watch since the game is typically very open.