For the fifth time this season, the Portland Timbers will play Real Salt Lake. For the second time this season, it is in the semifinal of a major cup competition. RSL prevailed in the penultimate round of the US Open Cup but the teams square off again, this time over two legs, for the right to play, and perhaps host, the MLS Cup final. As we've done each of the previous four times these teams have played, we reached out to SB Nation's Real Salt Lake blog, RSL Soapbox, to answers a few questions about the upcoming game. This time we narrowed it down to just two questions, as at this point, we all know a lot more about RSL than almost any other club in the league. Here's what Matt Montgomery has to say about the Timbers' semifinal opponent, ahead of Sunday's first leg:
1. How is this team the same as the other meetings?
That's a difficult question to answer in part because it requires some reflection on who we were during those earlier meetings. Thankfully (or rather, somewhat thankfully), all of those games were played during a relatively short period, so the changes were few across that timeframe. In essence, we first met when we were having our best period of the season; we last met when we were having perhaps our least productive run of games. Those two facts render us a different side between those two moments, and it likewise makes it difficult to predict what we'll look like at the end of this one. But this isn't about how we're different - rather, we remain a somewhat unpredictable side, with our scoring coming at times in fits and starts. But at the same time, we're still an attacking side liable to score at any point in any match, and we've still some incredible depth.
2. How is this team different than the other meetings?
There's been a palpable change in our confidence: First, we lost a cup final, and things seemed a bit down. Rightly so. But at the same time, it was important that we recover, and that we recover quickly. Our lack of success only escalated supporters' concerns that we were a weak side powerless to win in difficult situations at home. That belief has persisted, but beating LA Galaxy in extra time this week went some way to repair those grim thoughts. It isn't even necessarily that something has changed with our team, but that we've finally crested the first truly difficult hill of the season.
But in terms of players who are contributing, we're at largely the same spot. The biggest point of difference is that Chris Schuler has returned from a long injury layoff, and in doing so, he's come back and stabilized the defense in somewhat surprising ways. Our ever-leaky defense has shut up shop, and we've looked considerably less vulnerable in the air and on set pieces. It wasn't even a gradual change: He immediately brought a new element that seemed missing for some time, perhaps since 2010, when our defense was the best in the league without question.