The Portland Timbers will host Real Salt Lake tomorrow at Providence Park for both side's third match in the young 2016 season. RSL are one of the league's wild cards so far, undefeated through two matches and boasting an exciting stable of attacking talent, but still without a definitive performance to announce their arrival back among the league's elite.
There are plenty of questions surrounding the Timbers' Saturday evening opponents, and we were able to get answers to three of them from Derrick Saunders of our sister site, RSL Soapbox. And, of course, we were happy to answer their questions as well.
The questions coming into this season for RSL all seemed to surround the solidity of the team's defense. Now, two games in, have those questions been answered or is the back line still the worry for RSL fans?
It's obviously hard to judge a team on their performances so early in the season. Soccer is a game of exploiting errors. Games are won or lost by errors in a team or individual's play. We'll break down the first two games and look for clues about what to expect this season.
The first game in Orlando was sloppy at best. They were allowed almost free reign on the wings and sent in cross after cross, but RLS managed to hold on until the very last minutes of stoppage time. A few key errors at the end of a shaky performance caused RSL to limp back to Salt Lake City with only one point in hand.
The second game at home against Seattle was a better showing overall. Facing up against the fearsome trio of Dempsey, Valdez, and Morris, the back four performed admirably. Poor marking and a difficult save by Rimando led to the game's first goal, courtesy of Alonso. Though not the best defensive performance, winning the home opener and shutting down Seattle's trident is a definite plus for the early season.
Transfer rumors are that RSL is still in talks with a few center back options to be signed in the future. But so far this season, Olave and Maund have proven to be competent. Hopefully as the year progresses, the mistakes they make have less and less damaging consequences.
Joao Plata has been a terror on the pitch for RSL since joining the side in 2013; what makes him so dangerous and what does RSL need to do to get the most out of the pint-sized attacker?
Plata is a joy to watch play. He has the winning combination of clever footwork, good movement off the ball, and pace. His skills coupled with his size makes him a slippery customer to defend, and a valuable asset to RSL's revamped attack.
During Plata's break-out 2014 campaign he was paired up at striker with the big Costa Rican forward Alvaro Saborio. He played left striker in a 4-4-2 and benefited from playing alongside a target man who created lots of space for Plata to exploit. A number of hos goals were scored by cutting into the 18-yard box and shooting with his lethal right foot. He thrived in this partnership, netting 13 goals in 28 appearances.
Last season was tough because Plata suffered from a broken fifth metatarsal during the preseason and was out for half the season. By the time he returned to full fitness, Saborio was gone to D.C. United and RSL was in the middle of formation growing pains. The switch to the 4-3-3 coupled with the loss of Saborio made for a difficult 2015 campaign. Plata was often isolated on the wing, and his striking partners like Devin Sandoval and Sebastian Jaime commanded less respect than Saborio.
Though last season was a bit lackluster for Plata, 2016 season is ripe with promise. Enter Yura Movsisyan. The Armenian is known for his pace, aggression, and goal-scoring abilities; in other words a perfect match for Plata's skillset. Movsisyan will definitely take his share of the man-marking defenders, freeing up that space again for Plata in his place in the 4-3-3 as an inverted left winger. So far Plata has scored three goals in four games including (CCL competitions). It looks like he is settling in just fine on the left side again. A double-digit goal season is definitely not out of the question for Platita this season.
And now the easy stuff: what does RSL need to do in order to fight their way back into playoff contention in the crazy-competitive Western Conference this year? Can they?
Basically, this season is hinged on RSL's ability to capitalize in situations where it did not last year. Late goals given away, sloppy play, and injuries hampered them incredibly, and even then the playoffs were almost within reach until a few key games at the end of the season were lost. (Looking at you, Nat Borchers.)
With the addition of Chris Wingert, RSL has a steady, defensive minded veteran presence to help shore up the back line. Sunny has been fantastic at midfield so far, and Burrito and Plata are both in fine form. Making the playoffs comes down to RSL putting all the pieces together and winning those close matches this year. With the new additions and improved confidence from a healthy roster, RSL will be just fine.
Line-up Prediction: Rimando; Beltran, Olave, Maund, Phillips; Beckerman (C), Sunny, Morales; Burrito, Movsisyan, Plata