Strong's Notes: Grasping At Sand
On a quick turnaround from Wednesday’s heartbreak at the hands of league-leaders San Jose, the Timbers play their third game in eight days Saturday night at Real Salt Lake (5pm PT NBC Sports, 101.1 FM XL Radio / La Pantera 940). It’s a bittersweet return to Utah for Portland: their last game here featured an opponent hat trick, a Diego Chara red card, and was the last game before the team’s coaching change. Conversely, it’s also an opportunity to right the wrongs of Wednesday, and finally get the road-win monkey off their backs once and for all in 2012.
Grasping At Sand
In mid-June, just before the team’s last meeting, Real Salt Lake were off to a 10-3-2 start, unbeaten in seven games—five of them wins—and atop the MLS standings in their desperate chase for a Supporters’ Shield title. In the ensuing three months, however, a 4-8-2 record—and four losses in their last six games—has led to those hopes slipping through their fingers, and despite their overall playoff hopes remaining untroubled, they now find themselves in a fight with the Galaxy to avoid the wild card round in November.
Why this reversal of fortune? The usual bad luck, and ups and downs in form, that come with any soccer season has played it’s part, but injuries and suspensions have taken their toll as well. There is a hope, though, that Tuesday night may pave the way to a turned corner: dubbed by some as RSL’s biggest win this year, they battled their way to a late, late 1-0 victory over Panama’s Tauro FC in the CONCACAF Champions League, keeping alive their hopes of a spot in the knockout round, and securing their first away win for three months.
The win didn’t come without a price though: star forward Alvaro Saborio sprained his shoulder winning a second-half-stoppage-time penalty kick, and despite still converting the chance—and his own dogged determination to play Saturday night—reports suggest he may be out as long as a month. That would be a massive blow to RSL to lose the player who’s scored nine of their last 13 goals in all competitions, but it would also be part of an unfortunate trend this season.
You can break up Salt Lake’s team core, which has led them to great success the past few seasons, into three key pairs in different parts of the field: center backs Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, center midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales, and forwards Fabian Espindola and Saborio. The problem this year is how often those key players have been on the sidelines.
On the assumption Saborio misses the Portland game, it’ll mean just twice in the last eight games has he started alongside Espindola; and given that the latter player hasn’t scored for three months, it’s a big part of why RSL has struggled in front of goal of late. Same too at the back: Olave returned from a hamstring injury Tuesday night, having not lined up alongside Borchers in league play since July 21st. In fact, the team is 2-6-3 in the games the 2010 MLS Defender of the Year has missed through injury this year.
The one duo that hasn’t been as disjointed in the second half of the season is US international Beckerman, the defensive base of their midfield diamond, and all-time assist leader Morales. That’s good news for head coach Jason Kreis, who with the possible absence of Saborio has called for more offensive output from the rest of his squad.
The term “rivalry” is thrown out all to casually in MLS it seems, but one wonders if there might be anything extra between the Timbers and RSL on Saturday night. Portland came out of the meeting in July with accusations that they were targeting Morales with overly physical play and certainly the game in Utah at the end of last season featured one or two flare ups of emotion, led by former RSL player David Horst. Given the fire that we saw from the Timbers at the end of the game Wednesday in San Jose, and RSL’s lack of shyness when it comes to standing up for each other and their home turf, plus the charged up atmosphere coming from a sellout Rio Tinto Stadium crowd, Saturday night’s game could end up providing a bit of a show for the national TV audience.