The Timbers are taking things down to the wire as they look to qualify for the 2015 post season and we are taking it down to the wire in getting this preview together before tonight's match.
The Portland Timbers are back on the road today to take on fellow playoff hopefuls Real Salt Lake. After last week's devastating 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City, the Timbers have only three games to get back above the red line, so this six-pointer is vital to the team's chances of making it to the post season for just the second time since joining Major League Soccer five years ago.
Real Salt Lake
RSL have been the bane of the Timbers' existence since 2011, so of course they would be the team just three points back, hosting the Timbers in week 33 of the MLS season. After suffering through a season of spotty form that left RSL as low as 9th place just over a month ago, the Kings of Utah have rattled off wins in four of their last six matches, including a 3-0 home win over the LA Galaxy, dragging the team back into striking distance of the playoffs.
The Timbers have already faced off against RSL twice this season, so there will be very few surprises in this lineup. In the attack, Javier Morales, now 35 years old, continues his ageless magnificence in MLS, pulling the strings of the RSL attack while notching eight goals and eleven assists so far in 2015. At the center of the RSL defense is still Jamison Olave, 34. Recently returned from national team duty are Kyle Beckerman, 33, and Nick Rimando, 36, two more players of which Timbers fans will not have fond memories.
Rimando, of course, has served as the Timbers' boogeyman over the last three years in particular; when good-in-their-own-right keepers like Luis Robles or Tim Melia produce their own heroics to shut out the Timbers, the term "getting Rimando'd" is bandied about. The Timbers' may have been at least on even terms with RSL for the last several years, but there is a lingering feeling that, were it not for Rimando, the Timbers would be decidedly ahead in the head to head matchup and might even have come away from the 2013 season with some hardware after a stellar performance from the keeper in the Western Conference Championship. More recently, Rimando was a key part of the RSL draw at Providence park late in 2014 that sealed the door on the Timbers reaching the post season last year.
Even less established players like Joao Plata, Tony Beltran, and Sebastian Jaime are old hat to Timbers fans now.
There is, however, one new player worth highlighting: new designated player Juan Manuel Martinez, also known as "El Burrito". Brought in as Alvaro Saborio was sent packing following a break down in relations with the team, El Burrito is a classic finisher who has yet to find his groove with Salt Lake. Martinez, who has played five matches for RSL so far, has notched a goal and an assist for his new side, but still exists in the "adjusting to MLS" limbo that effects most new arrivals. While El Burrito has looked like a decent forward so far, there remains the worrying possibility that something could start to click between him and the rest of the RSL offense and, the often remarked upon adjustment period over, he could pose a significant threat to the Timbers' back line.
Were that to happen, the Timbers would find themselves facing off against a triumvirate of skilled attacking players in Morales, Jaime, and Martinez, with enough skilled players around them to make things difficult for the Portland defense.
The Portland Timbers back line will contain no surprises. Of that much we can be fairly sure. Further up the pitch, however, there is potential for all sorts of turmoil.
With Will Johnson out following the surgery to remove two screws from his tibia -- a remnant of last year's surgery to put those screws in and piece together his broken tibia and fibula, suffered in cursed Toronto, Canada -- and Jack Jewsbury have suffered an unspecified foot injury that seems like it will keep him out as well, the Timbers are left with the holding midfield corps of Diego Chara, George Fochive, and Nick Besler with which to piece together the team's usual double pivot. Chara and Fochive are the safe bet to occupy those spots, but for some further speculation check out these couple of thousand words on the subject.
Moreover, the Timbers attack, which has been dysfunctional at best all season, could see some changes made as well. With (probably) four spots to fill, the Timbers need to decide just who is going to get on the pitch. Diego Valeri is a safe bet for one and Darlington Nagbe for another, leaving just two spots remaining for Lucas Melano, Fanendo Adi, Rodney Wallace, and even Maximiliano Urruti to fight over. The last two games saw Adi and Wallace in the XI, and Adi is extremely like to be in his role as the team's man up top once again; who will take the final starting spot in the attack, however, is almost a toss up.
It won't be Urruti.
Wallace, if deployed out wide, could provide the athleticism and defensive contributions to help the Timbers keep the RSL attack at bay while still getting up the field regularly to contribute to the Timbers' attack. Still, Wallace has had a quiet year in 2015 and, despite providing five assists this year (as well as creating several other goals that were not eligible to earn him an assist), he has not had the same production in the attack that Timbers fans have been used two over the course of two fantastic seasons from him in 2013 and 2014.
Melano, meanwhile, is a player who seems to provide significant upside in the attack if played alongside Adi, but gives relatively little in the defensive end, particularly when compared to Wallace. Making things even harder for Melano is the fact that he has yet to find his game with the Timbers, putting in a series of frustrating performances where he created and took fantastic chances for the Timbers -- ones that nobody else on the would have been capable of creating thanks to his ridiculous speed -- only to fail to convert them.
Whoever the Timbers go with, they will have to be ready for a hard-fought, counter attacking game plan from Caleb Porter as RSL will most likely look to dominate the possession and take the game to the Timbers and the Timbers will look to absorb pressure and hit RSL on the counter.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. PT at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, UT
Portland Timbers: 12-11-8, 7th place in the Western Conference, LDLWL
Real Salt Lake: 11-12-8, 9th place in the Western Conference, LWWLW