In their biggest game of the season so far, the Portland Timbers go head to head with Real Salt Lake in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semi-finals on Wednesday night in Rio Tinto Stadium (6:30pm PT; ROOT SPORTS, 750 The Game). Here is the lowdown on the opposition.
A brief history…
Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, this franchise began playing in MLS in 2005 and they have become known for being thoroughly professional on and off the field. In 2009, they won the MLS Cup and two years later they competed in the final of the CONCACAF Champions League. Known for their attacking soccer, RSL has made the MLS playoffs in each of the last five seasons.
How did they reach this stage of the Cup?
Just like the Timbers, RSL entered this year’s competition in the Third Round, but they got off to a bumpy start after being forced into extra-time against the Atlanta Silverbacks. Goals from Kyle Beckerman, Devon Sandoval and Khari Stephenson secured a 3-2 win and their passage into the next round to take on Charleston Battery.
Again, RSL were made to work hard for their win with extra time required again to seal a 5-2 victory with Javier Morales finishing things off with a late penalty. In the quarter-finals, they shifted up a gear and dispatched Carolina RailHawks 3-0 thanks to goals from Tony Beltran, Chris Wingert, and Alvaro Saborio to reach the U.S. Open Cup semifinals for the first time.
How have they done so far this year?
Apart from their three U.S. Open Cup wins, RSL has fared well in MLS with a record of 11-7-5 to leave them sitting top of the Western Conference after 23 games played. Jason Kreis’ team average 1.65 points per game, boast the best attack in the league with 38 goals scored and one of the best defenses (although the Timbers has a five-goal swing on them in that area).
There were some concerns raised in preseason about how RSL would do this year after they traded Will Johnson to the Timbers, Justin Braun to Toronto, Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave to New York Red Bulls, and Paulo Jr. to Vancouver Whitecaps. But they showed faith in remaking their core and added some solid pick-ups in Robbie Findley, Joao Plata, Olmes Garcia, Stephenson and Josh Saunders.
Head coach: Jason Kreis
Part of a select group of players to have scored over 100 goals in MLS, Kreis has successfully made the transition from being a top player to an excellent head coach. Appointed as RSL’s main man in 2007, he maintains a 42 per cent win percentage and guided the team to their only MLS Cup triumph in 2009. A young coach with an ability to get the best out of his players, he is such an important part of the RSL franchise.
Star Player: Kyle Beckerman
Instantly recognizable due to his long, raggedy dreadlocks, Beckerman is one of the best defensive midfielders ever to grace MLS. Even though he wears the captain’s armband, the 31-year-old has always been a leader on the pitch and he never shies away from a battle. A superb passer of the ball, brilliant at breaking up opposition attacks, and a driving force when his team is pushing forward, he is RSL’s heartbeat.
One To Watch: Sebastian Velasquez
Born in Colombia, this tricky playmaker moved to the United States as a youngster and stood out at junior college in South Carolina, from where he was selected by RSL in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft. Still only 22, Velasquez’s best years are ahead of him, although he is beginning to have a big impact on games, where his neat footwork, eye for a pass, and individual skill help him to stand out.
What can the Timbers expect?
There are many similarities between how the Timbers play under Caleb Porter and how RSL play under Kreis as both coaches believe in positive, attacking soccer. However, the one big difference is that RSL normally plays with two strikers up front, who provide options for their diamond-shaped midfield that sees Beckerman at the bottom, Javier Morales at the tip, and usually Ned Grabavoy operating one of the two central spots.
Able to score all types of goals, this RSL team moves the ball forward quickly and attempts to catch their opposition off-guard before they have a chance to settle into a defensive unit. They are also dominant at set pieces with the likes of Saborio, Beltran, Grabavoy, and Nat Bochers able to provide power in the air, while the delivery of Morales – who has six assists this season – is often pinpoint perfect.
Who are their main threats?
Often when analyzing an opponent, the focus can be reserved solely for their forwards, but with this team, the spotlight should really shine on Morales. The Argentinean Designated Player can carve a defense open with his sublime passing and his shots from distance will ensure that opposition goalkeepers are kept busy. Without him, RSL is still a very good team, but with him in their line-up they are a real tour de force.
However, it would be foolish to overlook their forwards as Saborio, Findley, Plata, and Sandoval all bring pace, skill and finishing to a team that creates a lot of opportunities for them. In order to deal with them, the Timbers must cut off their supply lines and that means putting pressure on Beckerman and Morales in midfield. But they also have dangerous players in Sebastian Velasquez, Luis Gil and Yordany Alvarez.
Where are they most vulnerable?
It is difficult to pick holes in a team that tops the charts in most areas and has one of the league’s best goalkeepers in Nick Rimando protecting their goal, but they can be cracked open. The best way to attack RSL is by overloading them in midfield, because their diamond formation means that they can be stretched out wide and also exposed through the middle if Beckerman is not given enough support from his teammates.
At outside back, they are constantly breaking forward with Wingert, Beltran, Chris Schuler and former Timber Lovel Palmer all tasked with contributing to attacks. But when they venture forward, they leave massive gaps behind them and they could be the areas where Rodney Wallace, Darlington Nagbe or Diego Valeri can roam into to create goalscoring opportunities.
Previous Meetings in MLS
2011: April 30 – Portland Timbers 1-0 Real Salt Lake
2011: October 22 – Real Salt Lake 1-1 Portland Timbers
2012: March 31 – Portland Timbers 2-3 Real Salt Lake
2012: July 7 – Real Salt Lake 3-0 Portland Timbers
2012: September 22 – Real Salt Lake 2-1 Portland Timbers
Record vs Real Salt Lake: 1-3-1
Did You Know?
RSL striker Robbie Findley could have played for the Timbers after they picked up his rights in the 2010 MLS Expansion Draft but he went to play for Nottingham Forest in England and returned to RSL following a trade with the Timbers.
Gareth Maher is a contributing writer to PortlandTimbers.com. He is a frequent writer about soccer for the Irish Daily Mail in Dublin as well as ESPNFC.com.