In their last regular season game at JELD-WEN Field this season, the Portland Timbers play host to Real Salt Lake (7:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS, KXL 101.1 / La Pantera 940). Find out everything you need to know about the opposition for this crucial match.
What can the Timbers expect?
From what they have experienced already this season, the Timbers will be fully prepared for the fluid, attacking style that RSL do so well. Usually set up with a midfield diamond, they link play incredibly well and are not afraid to hang onto the ball even when the opposition attempts to put them under pressure. But it is when they move forward as a unit that they really hurt teams and show that they can score all kinds of goals.
With a team like RSL, who normally dictate the tempo of a game, it is vitally important that their attacking players are constantly on the move. They open up gaps that were not previously visible due to the runs made by their forwards off the ball and it is that movement that unsettles their opponents and stretches them into areas of the pitch that they would rather not stray into.
Where are they most vulnerable?
Even great teams have a weakness and for RSL that is in defense, where they can be pried open when a team pushes them onto the backfoot. While they have height and strength at center back in Nat Bochers and Carlos Salcedo, their outside backs do like to push forward and could be caught on a potential quick-minded counter.
Of course, in order to get past RSL’s backline, a team must first get by their midfield and that is a challenge in itself. But their midfield diamond can leave gaps, especially out wide, and the likes of Darlington Nagbe, Kalif Alhassan or Diego Valeri are experts at exploiting such situations. The key to revealing their vulnerable side is by applying pressure and the Timbers do that better than most teams.
Who are their main threats?
As with any team holding ambitions of winning the MLS Cup, there are multiple threats on their roster. But RSL, unlike some other teams, is not built around one star player. Sure, they have a slick playmaker in Javier Morales (who is injured for this match), a natural finisher in Alvaro Saborio, a midfield general in Kyle Beckerman, and a fantastic goalkeeper in Nick Rimando, but they never rely on one individual and it is their collective strength that makes them a real force.
In terms of how they pose a threat as a team, one only needs to look at their stats from games played this year. In almost every outing, they dominate possession, territory and shots on goal, which will always put a team in a position to win games. By moving the ball quickly through their short passing, RSL stretch their opponents and look to slide defense-splitting passes that can lead to a breakthrough on goal. Once they get into their rhythm, they are tough to stop.
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: Nick Rimando
Not only one of the best goalkeepers in MLS right now, but possibly one of the greatest to feature in the league. The experienced shot-stopper has gotten better with age and shot up the pecking order for the USMNT to challenge Tim Howard. For RSL, he is a real leader with his communication skills allowing him to direct his defense at key times and his desire to win providing his team with the right kind of motivation in the biggest of games. On top of that, he is an outstanding goalkeeper.
One To Watch: Joao Plata
He may be one of the smallest players in the league at 5'3", but Plata is also one of the most skillful. The Ecuadorian is fast, tricky and unpredictable – all things that keep opposition defenders awake at night. The 21-year-old showed glimpses of his talent with Toronto FC, but he has really blossomed under Jason Kreis’ leadership and is someone who can play out wide, as a playmaker or up front in a central role. Whichever positions he starts in, Plata is always likely to wreak havoc.
What happened when the teams last met?
The two teams have been engaged in some pulsating battles this season, but their last meeting saw RSL dominate and secure a 4-2 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium on August 30. Goals from Darlington Nagbe and Sal Zizzo were not enough to turn the tide as the home team saw Luis Gil, Plata, Morales and Saborio all get on the scoreboard.
What did the Timbers learn from that game?
Few will want to recall this loss, but it can serve as a reminder for motivation towards a win.
The first thing to take note of was their start to the game. It wasn’t sluggish, but it wasn’t as fully alert as it should have been and Gil punished them for it with a neat finish. Failing to heed that lesson, the Timbers conceded again and it was always going to be a huge task to turn the game back in their favor. What the game showed more than anything was that a team’s concentration must be turned on from the first minute to the very last.
What did the coaches have to say at the time?
Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter
“Credit to Salt Lake, they showed why they’re the best team in the league to this point. They punished us and we weren’t good enough on the day. We lost the game because we made mistakes, individually and collectively in our defending, and they punished us.”
Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis
“It was a fantastic start with two goals in the first fifteen minutes. The tempo, the play in the first half, what we were able to do to get at them early on, it changed the whole landscape of the match.”
How has RSL fared since then?
RSL’s form has dropped off since following up a 4-0 thumping of Columbus Crew with the 4-2 win over the Timbers. In fact, they have won just once from five games and the defeats to Seattle Sounders and San Jose Earthquakes stung quite a bit for the Western Conference leaders.
Did You Know?
RSL goalkeeper Josh Saunders was born in Grants Pass, Oregon and played for the Timbers during their USL years before moving into MLS, where he won two MLS Cups with LA Galaxy.
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.