The Portland Timbers have their first Saturday match of the 2016 season tonight as they face off against Real Salt Lake in Providence Park. Following on the back of the Timbers' loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, this match is the side's last chance this year to set a team record for points in the month of March with Caleb Porter at the helm, already having claimed the month's first win under Porter when they defeated the Columbus Crew in the season opener.
While the Timbers' match against San Jose saw the team carved open by a few opportunistic but well taken chances, this match will instead see the Timbers come under constant pressure from a creative and talented RSL attack. Yura Movsysian is still adjusting to the side after returning to Salt Lake following his five years in Europe, but the attacking corps of Joao Plata, Javier Morales, and Juan Manuel Martinez (a.k.a. "Burrito") that surround him have looked very dangerous, even if they have yet to start pouring in the goals.
Morales, who recently turned 36, missed out on RSL's home opener last weekend with rib and quadriceps injuries, but is expected to make his return for today's match against the Timbers. RSL's ageless wonder remains as effective as ever in the center of the pitch, pulling the strings of the attack and contributing the occasional highlight reel goal of his own when need be. While it is tempting to say that Diego Chara should be like Morales' shadow for this one, Darlington Nagbe might actually be more suited to the task, freeing up Chara for the damage control that will certainly be necessary when any of RSL's attacking midfield trio get going.
Plata and Martinez, after all, have been catalysts behind all of RSL's four goals to date.
Plata has been particularly effective in the first two matches for RSL, notching two goals and two assists -- for those keeping track, that means that he has either scored or assisted all of RSL's goals so far this year. The diminutive winger tends to lurk on RSL's left flank and cut inside, which will see him regularly matched up against Alvas Powell and Nat Borchers. By this point, Timbers fans know that Powell will shut down the vast majority of what is thrown at him, but a player of Plata's caliber in one on one situations will get by him at least once and, when that happens, Borchers or Chara will need to be prepared to step in.
For his part, Martinez looks to be coming into his own after a slow start to his MLS career last year. In two matches so far, the RSL right winger has two assists and, just as importantly, has shown off some dazzling foot skills, making several MLS veterans look downright foolish as the 2016 season gets underway. With Zarek Valentin the likely starter at left back for the Timbers, he and Jermaine Taylor will need to be on the same page to shut down Burrito's slaloming runs down the right flank. Equally importantly, the Timbers will need to be very conscious of their defensive shape and cannot allow gaps to form between the center backs and full backs where an explosive player like Burrito can exploit them.
A strong defensive foundation will be key in this game between two teams capable of breaking quickly down the pitch. For their part, the Timbers approach to this match seems likely to focus on breaking quickly down the pitch, playing through Fanendo Adi, and getting their wingers in behind -- where they will hopefully be able to convert some of the bevy of chances that the Timbers will almost certainly create.
While bringing Lucas Melano to the right flank and Dairon Asprilla to the left in the attack came as a slight surprise at the start of the season, for this match it seems like business as usual. The more consistent defensive cover of Asprilla will certainly be needed on the Timbers left to help shut down Martinez and the runs out of the back of Tony Beltran who pushes forward with some regularity from his right back spot on the RSL back line.
On the Timbers' right, meanwhile, Melano should be licking his chops at the prospect of running at MLS veteran Chris Wingert. Wingert is no slouch defensively, but he has seen a definite drop off in speed over the last several years and if there is one thing that we know about Melano it is that he has speed to burn.
In fact, the Timbers' team speed will likely play a large factor in this one, with new arrivals Darren Mattocks and Jack Barmby both likely to be on the bench and ready for potential substitute roles. The pair bring speed to the Timbers attack off the bench and could potentially be significant factors against an RSL defense that is savvy and organized, but not particularly quick as a whole. If they are going to exploit this, don't be surprised if the Timbers sit back and invite RSL to push forward, giving the counter attack room to work without gumming up the works.
Watch it on: KPTV
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 1-1-0
Real Salt Lake: 1-0-1