The Portland Timbers are back in midweek action as they host Real Salt Lake at JELD-WEN Field on Wednesday night (8pm, ROOT SPORTS, 750 The Game / La Pantera 940). Find out everything you need to know about the opposition.
What can the Timbers expect?
As the Timbers confirmed in their recent Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tussle, RSL is amongst the very best teams in the league right now. Strong in every position – from goalkeeper Nick Rimando through to striker Robbie Findley – they compliment each other well with their diamond formation in midfield or their 4-3-3 system providing just enough protection to their backline and the right amount of support for their forwards.
There are a lot of similarities between how the Timbers and RSL both play as they like to connect play through quick, sharp passing and rely on the movement of their players off the ball to create openings. But they can be quite direct at times too. And that is why they are such a threat, because they have players, like Alvaro Saborio, who can dominate aerial battles and also get in behind a defense to latch onto a long ball.
Where are they most vulnerable?
One area that the Timbers might target is the outside backs, where Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert are likely to be deployed. While both are confident defenders who break forward on overlapping runs, they can be exposed and dragged out of position. In the last meeting between the teams, Darlington Nagbe, in particular, had a lot of joy getting in behind Wingert on the left side and that led to him being able to get crosses into the penalty area.
In order for RSL to help their outside backs when they are put under pressure, either Kyle Beckerman or Khari Stephenson will have to switch across from midfield. But Beckerman misses this game due to yellow card accumulation and whoever replaces him is bound to leave gaps in the middle of the pitch. This could allow the likes of the Portland central midfield core to burst into. It is just up to the Timbers to be clever in how they switch the ball – and personnel – from those two areas.
Who are their main threats?
A lot depends on the lineup that head coach Jason Kreis goes with, but you can be sure that the most advanced trio on their team – two strikers and midfield playmaker – will be the players to monitor closely. Normally, those positions are filled by Saborio, Findley and Javier Morales, who are all equally dangerous and can turn a game in their team’s favor quite quickly. The Timbers really need to shackle that trio – although Joao Plata could feature and he is a threat too.
A scan through the stats and chalkboard from the last time these teams met shows that RSL likes to keep the ball deep in midfield or else high and wide on the flanks. Rarely do they hover around the opponents’ penalty area. Instead, they like to strike quickly by shifting the ball forward from the centre or getting crosses in from either side. This gives the Timbers a hint of when and where to apply pressure.
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 percent 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: Javier Morales
It took this Argentinean midfielder just 40 seconds to tally an assist in his first game for RSL back in 2007 – that is how good he is. Closing in on 150 games for the club, he has been their chief playmaker for the past number of seasons and cemented his status as one of the league’s best. Twice an All-Star, the 33-year-old is someone who makes things happen for his team with his slick passing, clever movement, and eye for goal.
One To Watch: Ned Grabavoy
Now with his fourth different team in MLS – following stops at LA Galaxy, Columbus Crew, and San Jose Earthquakes – this tough-tackling midfielder has found a home in Utah. He is seen by RSL as a key man on their roster even though he rarely makes the headlines as his work is done in stopping the opposition from playing and linking play with his team-mates. He has won the MLS Cup twice in his career, so he knows what is required at this level.
What happened when the teams last met?
In what was a fiercely-contested Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal at Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL came out on top with a 2-1 victory thanks to goals from Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata. A late goal from Diego Valeri could not spark a comeback as the Timbers were denied passage through to what would have been a first ever Cup final appearance.
What did the Timbers learn from that game?
The most obvious lesson for the Timbers was that RSL is a very well-organized team with tons of quality spread throughout. Breaking down such an opponent is never going to be easy, but the Timbers did find weaknesses, especially when they got crosses into the RSL penalty area. From the supporting, or second, runs made by Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri, they almost profited and that should give them hope going into their rematch.
On the other side of it, they discovered how deadly RSL can be. On seven minutes, there were at least five Timbers players in their own penalty area, but Saborio still powered in a header. And it was something similar when Plata unleashed the winning strike from the edge of the area. Both players gained just a few yards and they finished, which will have taught the Timbers that they will get punished unless they apply pressure at all times.
What did the coaches have to say at the time?
Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter
“I think we believe that if we got through this game, we could win the Open Cup. It’s tough. You have to come and play one of the best teams in the league on their home field, that’s a tall order.”
Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis
“Portland is a very, very good team. I think they caused us lots of problems – they were in and around our penalty box lots of times. I already had a ton of respect for them – I’m looking forward to three more matches against them [this season].”
How has RSL fared since then?
Since recording that narrow U.S. Open Cup win over the Timbers, RSL has beaten Houston Dynamo 1-0 and lost 4-2 to LA Galaxy. They still sit top of the Western Conference, but their points per game average has dipped to 1.64 compared to 1.65 for the Timbers. Having played two games more, they have an overall record of 12-8-5 and have scored more goals (41) than other team in MLS this season.
Did You Know?
RSL head coach Jason Kreis was the franchise’s first ever signing when they traded with Dallas Burn for him and they recently retired the No 9 jersey in honor of his remarkable service to the club.
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.