So for Real Salt Lake their match at Portland on Wednesday could be the most important match of the rest of the MLS regular season. With just 9 league matches remaining, 3 of them will be against the Timbers, so while we saw them in US Open Cup action this will be a chance to set the tone for a third of the remaining regular season. To be honest given the recent performances of RSL (2-2 draw at Colorado, 1-0 win over Houston, and 4-2 loss at LA) this could represent the best chance to get things back going in a positive direction, a chance to like they did earlier this summer to get on a good run of form (11 matches without a loss). That could really help them over the longer run, were the 9 remaining MLS league matches are spread over 10 weeks, a far cry from the 10 matches in 7 weeks (June and July) or 7 matches in 27 days which is the August Schedule.
There are no easy matches for RSL the rest of the way, every match is either against a Western Conference opponent and/or a team in the thick of the playoff hunt so every point will be vital if RSL want to keep ahold of the top spot in the West or the overall table. I am still holding out hope that RSL can find a way to pick up 9 points in their next 5 matches which include 3 at home in addition to the Wednesday match at Portland and a trip to Seattle. The 50 point tier is a huge one as it would be hard to miss the playoffs with 50 points and it would mark (if RSL can get there before LA) the first time a MLS team has had 4 straight seasons with at least 50 points. That is perhaps the best testament to the consistency that RSL has built since winning MLS Cup, but clearly the goal isn’t just that mark but to secure some actual silverware. MLS Cup and the playoffs are a crap shoot where an off night can sink you in a hurry, but with RSL still seriously in the hunt for the Supporter’s Shield and with the US Open Cup final coming in just over a month, both provide real chances to add a trophy to the collection.
The Timbers are a team that simply doesn’t lose often, just 3 losses in 23 matches and they have shown that they are a team unafraid of physical play but one that prefers to play a more attacking style (more direct than RSL) but at least better than the bunker and long ball of some teams around the league. It has been interesting to watch how quickly a new coach and a couple of new players have been able to change the very culture of the Timbers, who remind me a lot of the 2009 RSL squad that simply refused to give up, that went “balls to the wall” from whistle to whistle and fought for each other unlike any team I have seen before or since. It is hard in MLS or any league to face the same team several times a season, even harder to defeat an opponent several times in one season, but for both the Timbers and RSL they will be trying to do just that. The Timbers players and staff looked gutted after their loss in US Open Cup action just a couple of weeks ago, and now with two league matches against each other in the next two weeks the stakes are just as high as the Timbers look to secure as many points as possible in their attempt to claim their first shot at the MLS playoffs in what is a very tight Western Conference.
Nick Rimando – I think at this point of the season we can all be fairly honest with each other, without Nick both in goal and as a team leader, we probably would be one of those teams fighting to get into a playoff position rather than leading the conference. It was great for everyone to get to see Nick with the USMNT as it allowed him to showcase what us RSL fans have known for years, he simply is the best keeper week in and week out in MLS. Against a Timbers side that is +11 in goal differential at home he will likely be tested early and often, but for Nick that is all part of a workday and I would love to see him add another clean sheet to his season total on Wednesday.
Yordany Alvarez – back from his suspension for a tough tackle on Tim Cahill and with Kyle Beckerman out on yellow card suspension, we will likely see Yordany jump into the starting lineup to fill that d-mid role that will be very important against the Timbers. He only was on the pitch for a few minutes in the 2-1 US Open Cup win, and last year in 3 matches against the Timbers he only saw 7 minutes of action in one match. It could be a big risk for Jason to put him straight back into the lineup given the lack of minutes with the first team and his physical nature of playing which might do more than catch the casual attention of Ricardo Salazar. Jason has always said “Fortune favors the Bold” it could be a night where we need Yordany to be very bold.
Alvaro Saborio – There are few pure goal scorers in MLS, but when you have a conversation about them, you better include Sabo, who over the past few years has simply been a force up top for RSL. The 49 goals in regular season MLS action only tells part of the story, as Sabo has been a force in Champions League action as well and proven time and time again that if you get him the ball in the area he is likely going to either force a great save by the opposing keeper or he will put the ball in the back of the net. This year he has battled a couple of minor injuries and a very busy schedule representing the Costa Rican national team, to the point that in just 12 matches played in MLS action this year he already has 9 goals. Now to be fair 3 of them have come from the PK spot but that is all part of the game. If the past is any indication of what might happen on Wednesday, expect Sabo to score, with 4 matches played against the Timbers he has 5 goals. In the Open Cup match a couple of weeks ago he had a goal and an assist, but it was the goal that was perhaps one of the best headed goals I have seen in the last couple years, proving that no matter what type of match is being played Alvaro Saborio is a huge threat.
Caleb Porter – I get it, the guy is one smart coach, his success at Akron and now his transition to MLS are proof that the guy gets it and that he knows how to both motivate and apply tactics. I have a huge amount of respect for what he has done both in terms of tactics in Portland where they now have that never say die, never quit attitude that reminds many of the 2009 RSL team that won MLS Cup. He has instilled a culture where anything less than winning is unacceptable, he leverages the Timbers Army to create a home field advantage that is unlike anything seen anywhere else in MLS. Like that 2009 RSL squad he has brought in guys who are athletes as well as soccer players, he also has shown that speed isn’t a bad thing to have lots of as well. The shame for RSL is that despite Jason having a great season as a coach, you have to believe that the newcomer might walk away with the coach of the year award.
Ryan Johnson – It is kinda a shame that he still isn’t in Cobalt and Claret but timing often is everything in MLS and while the move to trade Ryan for Jack Stewart may go down as one of the worst trades in RSL history, it may have been the best thing for Johnson. It wasn’t with Chicago that he started to show what he was capable of, it took a move to San Jose where he started to really develop as a goal scoring threat and offensive threat. 2009 and 2010 were his most productive years with San Jose 12 goals and 10 assists, showed signs of what he could do, and so far this season with Portland he is showing more of the same with 8 goals and 4 assists. Those numbers come on just 34 shots of which 20 have been on goal, he is a strong, physical player who has a bit of pace that can make him a guy that you have to pay close attention to at all times.
Diego Valeri – Oh if MLS could find a couple dozen players like Valeri and put one on every team the league would be much more fun to watch, he has a flair that sometimes is lacking in MLS so it was refreshing to see Portland was able to sign him to a long term deal. 4 goals and 10 assists have to have him in running for newcomer of the year. He is one of those players who is willing to take shots from distance just to make sure the keeper is paying attention, in fact his 55 shots leads the Timbers this season and is more than any RSL player has taken this year. It is his work on the offensive side of the ball that has pushed Will Johnson (hope he recovers soon) into a more defensive role in the Timbers midfield but they are a very good group of players and the matchups with RSL over these next 3 league matches should be very entertaining to watch.
The season in a nutshell vs. unbridled expectations – At the start of the season I don’t believe that many of the experts out there would have said after 24 weeks of the MLS season that RSL would be sitting as the top team in MLS and that the Portland Timbers would be above both Seattle and LA in the Western Conference standings, but that is exactly where we are. For RSL they have hit a dog days of summer slump that could derail their unexpected start of the season, and unless the can get the ship back moving forward it could start to look a lot like the struggles the team faced at the end of last season (4-4-3 over last 11). With the team going just 1-3-1 in their last 5 a lot of people are worried that we may have peaked too soon, but a win on Wednesday would leave RSL with 8 matches left in their season and 13 wins, 5 of those 8 will be at Rio Tinto Stadium where RSL is very good. It is hard to believe that the season could hinge on just one match but I think a loss would probably leave RSL players and staff asking a lot of questions over the last couple of months of the season. A win could lead the team right back into the form that moved them quickly to the top of the table and set them back on course for a solid chance at multiple pieces of silverware this season.
The Timbers came into this season with everyone expecting them to be rebuilding, a ton of roster changes, a new coach, but wow have those humble preseason expectations changed over the first 2/3rds of the season. Just 3 losses in MLS action is impressive and their 11 draws (to go with 9 wins) show that new attitude of never stop playing, they have 23 second half goals while giving up just 10, their 9 goals in the final 15 minutes might not be as impressive as RSL’s 16, but their 3 goals allowed in the final 15 is mighty impressive (RSL has given up 10). It is that ability to close out matches that have allowed them to not be beaten, they are 7-0-4 when scoring first, and when giving up the first goal they have battled back and have a 2-3-4 record in those matches. RSL by comparison is 1-5-2 when giving up the first goal, and as we saw on Saturday in LA, scoring first is no insurance of a win as the team is now 11-3-3 when scoring first. No matter what happens for the Timbers over the last 11 matches of their season, there is no reason for these guys to not hold their heads high, they have shown that they can not only play with the big boys of MLS but they can beat them.
Match Prediction – I will say this, RSL needs a result in this match and while a draw wouldn’t be a disaster I think both the team and the fans need a win heading into the final stretch of the regular season. I don’t know if the distraction of qualifying for the US Open Cup final or expecting that with their World Cup/Gold Cup players back that things would get easier for the team, is behind the funk that RSL has had the last few matches, maybe it is just the extremely high expectations of fans, players and staff that make a 1-3-1 stretch seem so very unacceptable. It is funny that if you look at the numbers from the 4-2 loss at LA on Saturday, RSL had more passes, completed more passes, had more possession but still looked like they were being out-played. I think losing that way might just have been enough to piss some guys off and I think some of our guys play better when they are mad, when they have that chip on their shoulder.
Taking on Portland in Portland is no easy task as you are always having to deal with the Timbers Army as well as the players on the pitch, but this year with a bit wider pitch it should give a bit more room to allow the two midfields to do battle and I think that is where the match will be decided, both sides will likely have to create quick chances if they want to cause problems for the back lines that have a ton of talent, and to force the two best keepers in MLS this year into making saves. If RSL can find a way to take the fans out of the match, and keep the petal to the metal until the final whistle this is a match that I think they can win. If they can get the ball to Saborio, I don’t think the centerbacks of Portland can deal with him, as we saw in the Open Cup, the question might be who partners with him? Do you go with Plata, Garcia, or Findley, maybe you go with the 4-3-3 and really force the Timbers to defend more? One this that will be worth watching is how does Jason manage his subs, I still think that Plata is better off the bench than as a starter but Garcia seems able to cause as much chaos as a starter as he can from the bench. My brain says this is a 1-1 draw but to hell with that I am going for a 2-1 RSL win in what could be one of the most exciting matches of the season.
That’s How I See It