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Playoff Storylines: Real Salt Lake vs Portland Timbers

It’s time to win or go home.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Story So Far

Thanks to a comfortable 3-1 win at home against the San Jose Earthquakes, the Portland Timbers are through to the post-season for the third time in a row. Dairon Asprilla was already in playoff mode, as he scored in his second straight game and had an assist as well. His goal was the eventual game-winner, following a Larrys Mabiala opener that Chris Wondolowski cancelled out a few minutes before half. Sebastian Blanco had the icing, scoring off a beautiful free kick earned by Jeremy Ebobisse. With their first win in a month, PTFC should have confidence and fresh legs heading into the playoffs.

Real Salt Lake have strung together two wins in a row, most recently taking three points from British Columbia and the cellar-dwelling Vancouver Whitecaps. Finishing the season with 53 points, they earned third place in the west and the right to host the Timbers. Damir Kreilach scored RSL’s only goal in the 28th minute, and Nick Rimando made five saves to keep Vancouver scoreless. With three wins in their last six, Salt Lake is in better form than the Timbers, and they have a dominant home record over the season.

What To Watch For

Real Salt Lake (16-13-5, 53 pts)

The Claret and Cobalt made the post-season by beating up on weak teams during the regular season, and it was enough to earn them home field advantage. However their record against playoff teams — only one win against the other western conference teams that made the post-season — leaves questions about whether they can get results against superior talent. In tournament play, teams sometimes need that guy who can just get a goal on pure skill, and it’s unclear if RSL has that kind of player. If someone steps up, they might take advantage of playing at home.

It will also be interesting to see who Real Salt Lake chooses to start at centerback. In their last two regular season matches, they had two different pairings: Nedum Onuoha started both matches, but his partner switched from Marcelo Silva to Justen Glad. Behind them, Nick Rimando is still in goal. He’s 40 now, though, and isn’t as quick as the guy that has stonewalled chance after chance in seasons past. That said, he’s retiring after this season, so it’s his last chance to win MLS Cup, and the best way to do that is keep the other team from scoring. If RSL advances, it will be because Rimando made at least one or two stunning saves.

On the other end of the pitch, Real Salt Salt lake has solid MLS talent in Damir Kreilach, Albert Rusnak, Corey Baird, and Jefferson Savarino. What they’re missing is someone to just break the game open. Savarino and Rusnak arguably have the talent to do that, but haven’t really shown off that kind of instinct.

Recently, interim head-coach Freddy Juarez has shown a penchant for a 4-2-3-1 formation with either Sam Johnson or Kreilach up top with Savarino, Rusnak, and Corey Baird behind them. Kyle Beckerman still lines up at defensive midfield, alongside Everton Luiz. Donny Toia and Aaron Herrera have claimed the fullback spots, and as mentioned Onuoha will be at centerback next to either Silva or Glad.

In addition to the 4-2-3-1, Juarez has also put his team in a 4-4-2, as he did on Decision Day against Vancouver. The mix of players is the same with just slightly modified positions on the pitch. But last time RSL faced the Timbers, he went with his go-to, the 4-2-3-1, so that seems a likely option.

Portland Timbers (14-13-7, 49 pts)

With this match, the Timbers make a return to the road. But thanks to their dominant counter-attack, that may actually be preferable. They can’t seem to break down a bunker, but their opponents will be less likely to park the bus in a single-elimination game on their own pitch. As long as the Timbers can keep the other side off the scoreboard, they’ll get their chances to run out in transition.

PTFC has to feel pretty good about drawing RSL: in four matches with Giovanni Savarese in charge, the Timbers have taken 12 points from the Utah side. Back in 2013, it seemed like RSL had the Timbers’ number, and it showed in the playoffs that season. Now the roles look like they’ve swapped.

The big question ahead of this match is whether we’ll see Diego Valeri’s return to the starting lineup. Even though he was too hurt to make the bench against San Jose, Savarese says that he’s available. Whether that means fit enough to start or just enough for a super-sub role is unclear. The Timbers would get a big lift from his return, especially against Salt Lake; when the two teams last met at the end of August, it was Valeri’s golazo that got PTFC their goal in a 1-0 win.

Whether Valeri’s in the eleven or not, the Timbers will probably put out a 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree like they did against San Jose. It’s a bunkering tactic, but that’s what the Timbers do - bunker and counter. There are some uncertainties around who’ll see the pitch, though. If Valeri’s back, one of Dairon Asprilla or Andy Polo will probably head to the bench, and although it’s unlikely it could be Cristhian Paredes as well. But even if the maestro doesn’t start, Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano have both seen the eleven this season and could make a return.

Then there’s the spine, where we know who’s going to be there. Steve Clark and his league-leading save percentage will be in goal; Larry’s Mabiala, Bill Tuiloma, Jorge Moreira, Jorge Villafana will almost certainly line-up in defense (though there’s a chance we’d see Claude Dielna in for Tuiloma); Diego Chara will sit in front of the back four breaking up plays, and Sebastian Blanco will be in front of him. With Brian Fernandez out for substance treatment, Jeremy Ebobisse will get his 35th appearance and 26th start in a Timbers shirt this year.

While he’s not a carry-the-team sort of guy in the way that Valeri is, Jeremy’s been critical in getting the Timbers to the post-season, so we’ll hope he continues his form from the past few games and continue to show up in those critical moments. Even if he just takes pressure off Blanco and/or Valeri, so that they get some space for a moment of brilliance, it’ll be enough to give the Timbers a win.

Log Slices

In four previous post-season appearances, the Timbers have advanced from their first match-up three times. The year they failed to move forward was 2017 when Diego Chara got hurt in the first match of a home-and-home with the Houston Dynamo. But this year, the Timbers have shown an ability to win without Chara on the pitch.

The Timbers have played Real Salt Lake in Utah 12 times; over those matches, the two sides are exactly even: five wins, two draws, five losses, and eighteen goals.

RSL and PTFC have not met in the post-season since 2013, when Jason Kreis still coached in Utah and Caleb Porter was wrapping up his first year with the Timbers. In that home-and-home series, the Claret and Cobalt won both matches giving Salt Lake a 2-0-0 record over the Timbers in the post-season. Obviously, a lot has changed since then.