The Portland Timbers final home game of the 2014 regular season is coming up tomorrow as they host playoff-bound Real Salt Lake. The Timbers need to keep up their recent winning ways if they want to continue to challenge for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.
With two games left to go, the Timbers need to find a way to pull even with the Vancouver Whitecaps if they want to claw their way into the 5th place spot in the West. This game is not just about keeping pace with the Whitecaps; if the Timbers lose and the Whitecaps win then the Timbers will be eliminated from playoff contention outright.
In the Timbers' last match up against RSL, all the way back in June, both the attack and defense impressed in a 3-1 win in Salt Lake, the first victory the Timbers have managed at altitude since joining MLS.
Perhaps the biggest influence on the game was still freshly-arrived Fanendo Adi, who notched a pair of goals in a dominating performance against Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler, one of the more impressive centerback tandems in the league.
On the defensive side of things, however, the match against RSL was a showcase for Donovan Ricketts, who came up with some important saves to keep the Timbers in the match. With a remarkably patchwork backline in front of him, Ricketts made a handful of impressive stops in the early going, keeping the Timbers in the game long enough to get their attack in gear.
For this match, the Timbers will need big games from both Adi and Ricketts against an RSL side that is much closer to full-strength than the one we saw back in June.
Different from the Timbers' last match against RSL will be the central midfield pairing of Ben Zemanski and Diego Chara, a set-up that we have seen over the last three games since Will Johnson went out due to injury in the first minute of the Timbers' disastrous match against Toronto FC. The inclusion of Zemanski gives the Timbers a decidedly more measured midfield presence as both he and Chara tend to stay connected to the Timbers' backline and provide a strong shield for the defense.
After a shaky start in the late-game collapse against Toronto, the midfield has been dominant in the last two games, a pair of wins against the San Jose Earthquakes. The Earthquakes, however, are in free fall and the pairing of Zemanski and Chara remain untested against playoff-caliber competition. Tomorrow's match up will be against the likes of Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Joao Plata rather than Tommy Thompson, Sam Cronin, and Yannick Djalo.
Adding to the pressure in the center of the park is Chara's current disciplinary status. Only one yellow away from a single game suspension for accumulation, Chara will be tested often by RSL and, with another tough test against FC Dallas coming up to close out the season, his services will be desperately needed in both matches.
Chara is a master of keeping out of the book, getting carded only once for every ten fouls committed, while most high-fouling midfielders pick up a card for every eight fouls. Of course, Chara has picked up five yellows and a red card in his nine previous matches against RSL.
Real Salt Lake
Following on the heels of a pair of losses to Vancouver and the newly resurgent Chivas USA, RSL got back to winning ways last week with a 2-1 win over San Jose. Following a twelve game unbeaten run to start the season, RSL's forma has been spotty for much of the year, first slipping out of contention for the Supporters' Shield and now in danger of falling into the play-in game in the Western Conference with some results from Dallas.
The return of a bevy of international players from their most recent call-ups will help RSL right the ship, however. Joao Plata, one of this year's revelations in MLS, comes back from having scored a brace for Ecuador, while the always dangerous Alvoro Saborio comes back from his time with Costa Rica havign gotten on the score-sheet himself.
The returning players give Salt Lake a decidedly multifaceted look to their attack when combined with the midfield of Morales, Beckerman, Luke Mulholland, and Ned Grabavoy.
It is not only attacking reinforcements that are returning to the RSL camp; goalkeeper extraordinaire Nick Rimando is also back with Salt Lake after his most recent call up to the USMNT. Over the last four years, Rimando has made twenty-three saves against the Timbers, most of them heartbreaking. Rimando's biggest numerical performance against Portland came in early 2012 when he made six saves in RSL's 3-2 victory in Portland.
Watch it on: NBC Sports
Kickoff: 7:00 PM PT at Providence Park
Portland Timbers: 11-9-12, 6th place in the Western Conference
Real Salt Lake: 14-8-10, 3rd place in the Western Conference