The Portland Timbers are set to take on Real Salt Lake this afternoon as they try to claw their way up the rankings in the Western Conference. The match will be the two team's second meeting of the year, following April's 1-0 Timbers loss in Salt Lake, and will be the Timbers' best chance in recent history to put one over on RSL after failing to beat them since 2011.
Another week sees another batch of changes to the Timbers' backline. The trade of Futty Danso, while far from unexpected, leaves a hole after he started the majority of the Timbers' matches so far this season. With Pa Modou Kah, Norberto Paparatto, and Rauwshan McKenzie the remaining centerbacks on the first team, as well as Danny O'Rourke and several others who could step in in a pinch.
This week it seems like McKenzie is the odds-on favorite to start against RSL, having played in each of the Timbers' last three games. Alongside him could be either Kah or Paparatto, although has been dealing with their own unique injury issues. Kah missed a chunk of practice this week, riding an exercise bike on the sidelines as part of the treatment for achilles tendonitis, an issue that he has been mananging for some time now. Paparatto' medical issues are somewhat different, as he has been out after a brief bout of concussion symptoms following a collision in the Timbers' match against Chivas USA in the middle of last week. Both players have been cleared to play, but there has been little indication as to who will actually get the call today.
At the other end of the pitch, things are going nicely for the Timbers on the attack, a fact that can primarily be laid at the feet of Diego Valeri. In the last six games Valeri has claimed seven assists and one goal, driving the offense forward at a breakneck pace. Valeri did have a string of matches in August of 2013 that saw him racking up assists at a similar clip, but if he can continue to bring his level of performance against RSL, he could find himself in uncharted territory.
Around Valeri, the rest of the attack is clicking as well. The Timbers' three forwards, Fanendo Adi, Gaston Fernandez, and Maximiliano Urruti, have combined for eight goals in the Timbers' last four games, fourteen on the year. All three are on track to break the double digit mark this season for goalscoring (although Adi certainly has a very small sample size, having only player matches with the Timbers so far), something that only Valeri has managed since the Timbers joined MLS.
Really, the most obvious missing piece in the attack is Darlington Nagbe. The Timbers' first ever selection in the MLS Superdraft still has yet to score a goal this season. Where Nagbe has shone is with the ball at his feet, holding it up and distributing around the midfield. However, he has not been able to get the penetration into the box that he showed off last year and that powered him to a nine goal haul on the season.
Real Salt Lake
All that anyone can talk about with regards to RSL right now is their extensive list of missing players. With Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman missing while on national team duty for the duration of the World Cup and another handful of players, including Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley, out due to injury, RSL is currently depleted. However, no team knows better than the Timbers that RSL can get excellent performances from some of their second string MLS players.
Of course, while RSL are missing several key players, they do still have the services of players like Javier Morales. Morales has a history of scoring or assisting against the Timbers, and generally doing so in the most dramatic fashion possible: doing things like setting up a stoppage time equalizer or dribbling through the defense before cutting the ball back for an easy goal.
Regardless of their lineup, it is impossible to ignore the fact that RSL have only lost once in league play so far this season. The result came one week ago at the start of RSL's busy period in a surprisingly lopsided 4-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Park. RSL's defense have generally been in a feast or famine mode this year, either getting the shutout or allowing multiple goals in the majority of their matches this year, but the offense had, until then, been able to carry them through.
Keys to the Match
Shut down Morales. The Argentine playmaker may now be 34, but that has not slowed him a step when it comes to carving up the Timbers. However, without several of his more important optionsin the attack or Kyle Beckerman behind him, the Timbers should be able to take Morales out of the game.
Don't do anything stupid. No penalties. No own goals. No passes directly to an attacker just outside your own box. You know the drill: none of the stuff that we have gotten used to seeing this year.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 7:00 PM PT at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, UT
Portland Timbers: 3-4-7, 8th place in the Western Conference
Real Salt Lake: 6-1-7, 2nd place in the Western Confidence