Major League Soccer is back in action today and the Portland Timbers have hit the road, heading to Sandy, Utah to take on Real Salt Lake. This will be no walk in the park for the Timbers as RSL are a prefect 4-0-0 at home so far this season while the Timbers have yet to win on the road, going 0-4-3 away from Providence Park. Still, there is reason to hope that the Timbers can pull this one off.
Traditionally, playing at altitude at RSL's Rio Tinto Stadium has created one of the most inhospitable environments for away teams in Major League Soccer, grinding traveling players down and seeing teams run out of gas earlier than normal. In today's match, however, the teams' fitness will be affected by other factors, namely Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup matches. While five days is plenty of time to recover, RSL were forced into a grueling extra time match in which they played many of their projected starters for today's match. (Read more about it here in Chris's Three Questions.)
If the Timbers think that they have a potential advantage in fitness, they could very well change their approach to this match, looking to run down RSL rather than jumping on the early and grinding out a result.
No matter the nuances of the Timbers' approach to RSL, the key to the match will be the Timbers play out on the wings. RSL boast two of the most dangerous wide attacking players in MLS in Joao Plata and Burrito Martinez, and both the full backs and the wide midfielders will need to contribute to their defense if the Timbers want to keep RSL contained.
To that end, the Timbers will have some options out on the flanks as players like Alvas Powell and Darren Mattocks make their respective returns from injury and winger Dairon Asprilla serves his game suspension for an elbow to the face of San Jose Earthquakes defender Jordan Stewart. Powell, who was out due to surgery on his wrist, has certainly been able to keep in shape during his time off the pitch and should be able to step in and start, likely pushing Zarek Valentin over to the left back spot which has caused the Timbers so much consternation this season.
The attacking options out wide are somewhat trickier for the Timbers as the options available provide very different looks for the team. Ned Grabavoy, Lucas Melano, Darren Mattocks, Jack Barmby, and even regular T2 loanee Neco Brett are possibilities for this one. Grabavoy seems like a strong possibility against the club with which he made his name in MLS and his high defensive work rate and wont to drift inside and play quick, simple passes on the grass could help unlock the free roaming Diego Valeri. Grabavoy, or any of the Timbers wingers who tend to drift in to the center of the pitch, could be benefited from a partner on the opposite wing that is willing to stay wide and create room in the center of the pitch.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 7:00 p.m. PT at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah
Portland Timbers: 5-6-5, 7th place in the Western Conference
Real Salt Lake: 7-4-2, 3rd place in the Western Conference