After two losses to Real Salt Lake and one crushing draw that was minutes away from being a win for the Portland Timbers, it does feel like they have our number this season. In the race for the Supporters' Shield, they are an intimidating obstacle. They play like we do, but the core of that team has been together, playing this style, for longer.
However, there are factors in the Timbers' favor this time that make this game the perfect opportunity to flip the script. The Timbers can beat Real Salt Lake this weekend. Here's why:
"The players that make you tick"
In two regular season meetings with Real Salt Lake and one U.S. Open Cup match-up, Diego Chara and Will Johnson have played together for less than a whole game. About 60 minutes into the USOC semifinal, Johnson left the game with a shoulder injury that kept him out for the next two meetings with RSL. The Timbers don't truly have a backup who can come close to bringing what either Johnson or Chara brings to the Timbers, and the team's record without those players reflects that; four the Timbers five losses have come when one of them is missing. This Saturday though, they'll both be there, making things hard for Real Salt Lake in midfield and making the Timbers tick.
Tightening the screws on set pieces
(Don't worry, I'm typing with one hand and knocking on wood with the other.)
Set pieces have played a role in all of the Timbers games with Real Salt Lake--in a bad way. RSL's first goals in both the U.S. Open Cup Semifinal and the match at Jeld-Wen Field were scored when the Timbers failed to clear a set piece and gave their opponent another chance to dump the ball into the box. And of course, there were the two goals the Timbers conceded at Rio Tinto on set pieces, which are difficult to forget because one of them was the Javier Morales bicycle goal.
Here's the upside: since that most recent game against Real Salt Lake, the only set piece goal the Timbers have conceded was Camilo Sanvezzo's direct free kick. The Timbers have really cleaned up that area of the game. In fact, the defense is really clicking in general, not just on set pieces. The recently shut down Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan and held a clean sheet against a team that went on to beat the Sounders 5-1. Caleb Porter's choice to play a more experienced and mature back line has payed dividends.
"We can out-football teams, but we can outfight them too. " - Caleb Porter
The Timbers still want to play attractive, possession soccer, but they really want to win. Lately they've been mastering getting those result even when it isn't pretty. Seattle, LA, Colorado--none of these were pretty games, but the Timbers took all three points away from each of them.
Tomorrow may not look nice either, since Real Salt Lake has seen the better of the possession in two of three games against Portland. This game could be a real test of the Timbers ability to grind out a result at all costs.
Only five points. Two league losses and the end of our Open Cup fun. Our captain injured most of the month. Let's face it, August was a bad month and all three previous games this season against Real Salt Lake were in August. It's not August anymore. Rejoice.