Rio Tinto Stadium has been the proverbial soccer fortress this season, allowing Real Salt Lake to claim 34 of a potential 45 points at home. Combined with the Portland Timbers’ recent, discouraging road form, the mark crafts a prognosis for Saturday’s match in Utah that, well, doesn’t seem good. Amid two teams battling for playoff positioning (and, potentially, a playoff spot), RSL may have a huge edge in the teams’ first meeting of the season.
Yet as Portland’s 2018 shows, there is only so much that can be assumed from past performance. After two weeks of the season, the Timbers looked like the worst team in Major League Soccer. (They weren’t.) Three games later, Portland still didn’t look capable of contending. (They are.) Then, following a 15-game unbeaten run, the Timbers seemed like one of MLS’ best (not true), while the team’s current form has us wondering why they are so different when playing on the road.
Even the phrasing of that last clause is a little assumptive. “Are” so different? The word choice implies permanence – that something endemic about the Timbers is being revealed through the team’s recent road wobbles. A better way to phrase it would be “have been” so different. Why have the road performances been so different, because in MLS, there’s little guarantee a team can’t change gears and show an entirely different side of themselves at a moment’s notice.
The Timbers did so at this point of the season in 2015 and went on to claim their star, a run that began with a trip to Rio Tinto. On Saturday, Portland has a chance to reclaim that magic, perhaps revealing themselves as the team we’ve seen before (6:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS).
Here are three areas of focus for tomorrow’s match in Utah – this weekend’s KeyBank Scouting Report.
1. One-front or two
At a point when goalscoring and road form may be Portland’s two biggest uncertainties, the most important aspect of last Saturday’s draw with FC Dallas may be the performance of the two-front at forward. In a world where Sebastián Blanco is due to return to the Timbers’ starting XI, did the pairing of Samuel Armenteros and Jeremy Ebobisse do enough to get another shot? Or, if not those players, specifically, did the team’s attacking performance peak enough curiosity for Giovanni Savarese to give it another go?
By the scoreboard, the answer is simple. The Timbers didn’t score any goals on Saturday, and ultimately, you can’t get more than a point unless you wipe your “0” from the scoreboard. But if a coach’s job was to look at the first layer of data and make decisions, we’d all be qualified to run teams. Instead, staffs have to look in more detail at their teams’ performances, and as Savarese said on Tuesday, there are aspects to the two-front’s performance that were encouraging.
Going on the road complicates things, a little, as does the fact that a draw against Real Salt Lake – or, better put, preventing them from getting full points – would be a huge step toward qualifying for the 2018 postseason. But in the way RSL plays – in the inexperience of their 21-year-old fullbacks (Brooks Lennon and Aaron Herrera), as well as how aggressively they push up on opposing wingers – there is the chance to isolate the team’s central defenders, Justen Glad and whoever of Nick Besler or Marcelo Silva starts.
If those centerbacks are going to be isolated, or if there will be space behind the fullbacks to move into, you want two players available to take advantage instead of one. And if the underlying performance from Saturday’s game tells Savarese that a two-front can be more effective this week than last, both the scoring woes and road form can be addressed with one move.
2. Watch for the counter, watch for the runs
Real Salt Lake’s 54 percent possession rate for the season is third-best in Major League Soccer, but a look at how they played against Sporting Kansas City on Sunday provides a different, perhaps counterintuitive perspective on that number. So much of RSL’s possession seemed to be carried along their own defense, in their own half. When the team was moving forward, it was often by playing direct to their forwards and wingers, trying to catch their hosts on the counter or merely take on a more territorial approach.
The season-long numbers support that as an overall trend, to a certain degree. The 75 long balls Real Salt Lake plays per game, per Opta, are the most in MLS. Despite being third in possession, RSL is only 10th in the league in shots per game (14), and the team is only 15th in the league in time spent in the attacking third (27%).
None of that is necessarily good or bad. It just provides some context to the higher profile, impressive possession number. It also lends some support to what, via the eye, we saw in RSL’s game against Sporting.
Their most dangerous moments were like the ninth minute goal scored by Corey Baird, where they can use players like Jefferson Savarino, Joao Plata and Damir Kreilach to break against a backline. Then, whomever is on the ball can see the Bairds of the world make diagonal runs in behind the centerbacks, testing whether an opposing defense can stay organized against a relatively tried-and-true approach.
If teams defend like Ilie Sanchez and Ike Opara did in that highlight, RSL will score goals. They’ve got the talent to punish those kinds of mistakes. But if players like Larrys Mabiala, Diego Chara, David Guzmán and Lawrence Olum, among others, can handle those situations better – handle them as Sporting did through the rest of Sunday’s game – Real Salt Lake can be stopped.
Even if attacking focal point Albert Rusnak returns to RSL’s starting lineup, Portland won’t see anything they can’t stop. It’s just a matter of executing when they’re tested by those counters.
3. Mind your feet
Any evaluation of Portland’s road woes has to start with the Timbers’ own performance. The Houston Dynamo played well in their recent 4-1 win at BBVA Compass Stadium, as did Minnesota United while beating the Timbers 3-2 two weeks ago. But be it the inability to handle pressure, the poor turnovers, the bad decisions or the physical failures, Portland has been playing differently at a fundamental level when they go away from home.
That makes objective number one at Rio Tinto Stadium pretty straight forward: Play your game. Play like you’re capable of playing. The same composure you show at Providence Park? At least take that on the road. Whether it will be good enough to produce three points is something to consider as the game develops. Unless the actual play – in terms of principles, execution, style – starts to match what the team shows at home, there’s nothing to build on once you’re on the road.
If it’s just a reality of the 2018 Timbers that they’re going to be so different on the road, the team has issues that can’t be addressed over the final three-plus games of the season. Thankfully, that does not appear to be the case. We’ve seen Portland play well on the road with their current personnel. It wasn’t that long ago. From April through August, the Timbers were actually strong away from home.
Why that’s the case may go beyond merely playing better, but in the mistakes that were made at Houston and Minnesota, you see basic decisions and techniques that have to be executed, no matter what. And until those things are happening – until the Timbers stop shooting themselves in the foot away from home – other, more nuanced problems about selection, formation and tactics are impossible to solve.
It’s not a brilliant piece of analysis, I know, but the Timbers have to play better than they did at Houston and Minnesota. They have to play better before we know the true scope of their road problems.