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Storylines: Real Salt Lake vs Portland Timbers

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Timbers look to get a head of steam going into the final three matches of the season

MLS: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Story So Far

I’m sorry, but that nil-nil draw with FC Dallas in some ways felt like a loss. The Timbers could have moved up the table with a win, further cementing themselves in the playoff race. Even though it was only one point, I think all of us would take that over zero points. Anyway ... the Timbers now head out on the road for a home and home series with Real Salt Lake. Can the green and gold pick up three points on the road, or will the offense sputter once again?

Real Salt Lake are coming off a 1-1 draw against the second-best team in the West: Sporting Kansas City, who are just two points out of the lead in the West. Right now RSL are fighting for a playoff spot, so a win at home would go a long way to put some distance between them and seventh-place Los Angeles Galaxy, who are making a playoff push of their own.

Can the Timbers come into Rio Tinto Stadium with a chip on their shoulder looking to scrap for three points, or will RSL keep that playoff push alive with a win at home?

City of the Saints

Only three teams in the West can boast double-digit wins at home: Minnesota United (10-4-1), Portland Timbers (10-2-4), and Real Salt Lake (10-14). So to say that RSL are strong at home would be a wee bit of an understatement. Mike Petke and Real Salt Lake have control of their destiny as the season winds down.

In just his second year at the helm of Real Salt Lake, Petke is still growing into who he is as a manager. Sometimes he might get out-coached, but I think that might be because he gets in his head too much. He’s put a solid team together, however, and it is more than likely headed to the playoffs. This will not be easy for the Timbers to be sure — RSL have turned Rio Tinto into a fortress where, as I mentioned, they’ve only lost one match at home this season.

What to Watch for

Real Salt Lake (13-11-7; 46 pts)

In the draw with Sporting KC, Real Salt Lake deployed a 4-3-3. Most of the season has been a move between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3. While Cory Baird may start up top, it’s midfielder Damir Kreilach that leads the team in goals (11). Albert Rusnak just signed a large new deal and has the numbers to back it up (10g; 5a). The Timbers defense will have to keep one eye on him at all times.

Real Salt Lake vs Sporting KC

Look for them to play a possession-based match with attacks down the wings, especially the left — so whoever the fullback ends up being, they will have their hands full. They put out a consistent starting XI, and I wouldn’t expect anything less, whether they deploy the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. To be honest, this is a must win for both teams. RSL need to win to put distance between themselves and the LA Galaxy, who are just two points off the sixth spot. With their home record, it’s going to be a tough go for the Timbers.

In their last 10 matches, Real Salt Lake have gone 4-4-2. While it’s not lighting the world on fire, it’s far better than the Timbers’ record of 2-6-2 in that span. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s eight points out of 30 that were on the table, which illustrates to a point how bad the Timbers have been lately. So look for RSL to come out of the gates firing on all cylinders.

Portland Timbers (13-9-9; 48 pts)

Let’s face it: the Timbers are not that great on the road (3-7-5), and there hasn’t been anything lately that shows me they can improve on that. This match really is a must-win to keep playoff hopes alive. Remember: the Sounders have a game in hand on the Timbers, which could prove problematic.

The Timbers really need a result on the road — preferably a win — but they cannot leave Rio Tinto Stadium empty handed. These last three matches are going to be a test for Gio; to see if he can keep the team above the line and playoff bound.

The Timbers defense will be called on a lot, as RSL have scored 33 goals at home this season, though on the road they’ve only scored 17. This is going to be a tough one for the Timbers, and Gio needs to set them up to get a result.

One of the things that needs to happen Saturday is to have the offense actually show up and produce. I mean, Samuel Armenteros hasn’t scored a goal since what seems like the Reagan administration, and Diego Valeri isn’t ... Diego Valeri. I’m not sure what’s up with the Skipper, but he’s not been himself. I’m not sure what’s causing it, maybe not having his minutes managed right this season? I don’t know ... I’m just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks at this point.

Even out of form, Valeri manages to lead the team in goals with 10, and assists with 8. But he’s hit a rough patch — and we really need him to dust himself off and show at least a glimpse of his MVP self from last year to finish the regular season strong. Or am I asking too much here?

It may seem like I’m focusing on Valeri, but I’m not. Over this last 10-match stretch, pretty much everyone on the team has been abysmal. Not to mention losing your starting keeper, getting said keeper back — and then he’s on the shelf again, with what I would guess is a dislocated shoulder. They have his injury listed as “undisclosed” on their injury report.

Other than that, most should be available for selection. It’ll depend on who travels and who doesn’t. Of course they’ll be without the services of Liam Ridgewell, who last week picked up a red card in stoppage time for violent conduct. So I’d expect to see Cascante start alongside Mabiala. Hopefully Cascante can keep the errors to a minimum, especially against a team that has scored 33 goals at home. It’s possible that the Timbers will be without the services of Alvas Powell as well.

Log Slices

I’ve said it a couple times, and I’m going to say it again: This is a must-win. It would be nice if the Timbers could run what’s left of the table and go into the playoffs as the fifth or sixth seed. Seeds five and six have to go on the road, while the first through fourth seeds all get to host. So if the Timbers keep in the playoff race, I’m pretty confident that they’ll have to go on the road to start the playoffs — unless some sort of miracle happens that puts the Timbers in the top four.

Not a bright outlook. Real Salt Lake are undefeated in their last 14 home matches. Can you say “fortress”? They’ve got one of the best home records in the league, and if it weren’t for their shoddy road record, they’d probably doing a lot better. But failing to get results on the road (just ask the Timbers) will come back to bite you in the arse.

Given another transfer window, I think that Gio can completely dial in this team. It’s gone about as well as I could have expected with a new coach with no MLS coaching experience. Although his time with the Cosmos shows that he can win, I just think the fanbase needs be patient with Gio.