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Three keys to the Timbers racing past Real Salt Lake

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Portland faces another pivotal Western Conference clash with RSL in town. Here’s how they can keep their unbeaten run alive on Saturday.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers’ current three-game homestand concludes on Saturday night when Real Salt Lake comes to the Rose City for the final time this season. After a match last week against LAFC in which the stakes for playoff positioning were high for the Timbers, they have a match of a similar magnitude on Saturday. RSL trails Portland in the standings by only a point and if Portland wants to cement its status as a contender in the West, it’s a key game to reinforce its positioning in the standings.

The times have been good for the Timbers as they are in the midst of a five-game unbeaten run. If they are to make it six, here are the things they have to do:

Get Sebastian Blanco some help

Sebastian Blanco has been nothing short of talismanic for the Timbers since his return to full fitness. Eight of Portland’s last nine goals have come via some sort of intervention from Blanco. Whether it is scoring them himself, providing an assist, or providing the ball that leads to the assist/scoring opportunity/penalty. He’s been immense.

Blanco’s been the only reliable attacker for the Timbers lately. Portland’s attack has been so Blanco-centric because he has been the only one who has been able to find good spaces and break down defenses in a consistent manner.

The Argentine’s run of form is impressive and very welcome and I will never poo-poo Blanco being Blanco. But it’s also not the most sustainable run. Eventually, opposing defenses will figure out how to bottle Blanco up and he may not be able to adjust in time to continue to provide the majority of Portland’s attacking output.

Therefore, to beat RSL one of Portland’s other key attacking pieces will need to step up to augment Blanco’s attack. Dairon Asprilla is having a career year, but his game is more suited to finishing off plays rather than creating them. The main man under the spotlight is Portland’s other fully healthy designated player: Yimmi Chara.

The younger Chara brother has played around 1,550 minutes for the Timbers this season and has tallied three goals and two assists. He is averaging only 0.18 expected goals per ninety minutes for the Timbers this season and 0.2 expected assists, according to FBref. Marvin Loria is averaging the same number in both statistical categories and has played almost 600 fewer minutes.

In short, Yimmi’s return hasn’t been good enough. I know much of his game isn’t necessarily suited to being a primary playmaker, but in order for Portland to continue being a consistent attacking threat, he needs to start being a more consistent threat. This weekend against RSL is a prime time for him to do so.

Concede less than 1.0 expected goals

Portland’s defense has indeed been better but it has not been great. The underlying defensive numbers have improved but they still don’t love the Timbers. In their past two home games, Portland has lost the expected goals battle, according to FBref. They have an expected goal differential of -0.9 over their past two matches.

Much of that is due to game states and in particular, having to play 45 minutes down a man. But it’s still reflective that Portland’s defense has been benefitting from a little luck, at least according to the stats. The eye-test and results do lend themselves to the narrative that Portland’s defense has been just barely good enough but has a lot of room for improvement.

The game against RSL is one where I could see the dam breaking. The current iteration of RSL is scrappy, opportunistic, and tends to not lose easily. With attacker Damir Kreilach being in form, and playmaker Albert Rusnak having chipped in three assists over his past three games, Real Salt Lake has all the trappings of a team that could capitalize on the Tmbers’ defensive leaks. Heck, the last time they were in Portland the Timbers lost the xG battle by 0.4, so they nearly have already.

If the Timbers can limit RSL’s opportunities and have a game where the underlying stats line up with a positive result on the field, it will not only help them to another win but also help instill some reliable consistency to a backline that is steadily improving. That 1.0 number is obviously not a guarantee but if they can keep it below that and not concede, while also scoring (see above point), then it's a recipe for a solid and assured game.

Keep making smart adjustments

The credit for much of Portland’s recent form should be given to Giovanni Savarese and the in-game adjustments he’s made for the Timbers. He made key substitutions to solidify the backline after Bill Tuiloma’s red card against Colorado and he made an important move to bring on Diego Valeri against LAFC last weekend.

The Valeri move was emblematic of the types of positive adjustments Savarese has been able to make. During the match, Savarese thought the Timbers needed more movement in front of LAFC’s defensive midfielders to support with circulating the ball and retaining possession for his side.

So, Gio made the swap to bring Valeri on and it paid dividends. He specifically cited how Valeri’s impact helped Portland keep the ball and eventually see out a result. In his postgame press conference, Savarese said, “We knew Diego is a very clever player at finding those spaces and connecting. He utilized those spaces and was able to find balls through their back line. With him, we were able to keep more possession in the second half.”

Making key moves like that will be essential against RSL. Under interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni, RSL has rolled out multiple tactical setups, toggling between a back four and a back three and adjusting to exploit the weaknesses of their opponent. When they zig, Savarese will have to be ready to have his team zag and adjust well to give his team the best opportunity to continue their strong run of form.