BEAVERTON, Ore. – It’s been almost two years since the Portland Timbers dropped a point to Real Salt Lake, and while that period only encompasses three games, the one-sided nature of those games speaks to the changing dynamic between the two clubs.
Over those matches, RSL has been outscored by Portland 9-2. They've never led the Timbers since Giovanni Savarese took over. Six different Timbers have scored in that time, while even the teams' meeting in this February’s preseason Mobile Mini Sun Cup preseason tournament produced a rout. That 3-0, meaningless loss feels eerily appropriate within the context of the teams’ recent results.
As Timbers fans know, though, it hasn’t always been like this. Though Portland won the first meeting between the teams in 2011, Real Salt Lake went the next 11 meetings without a loss. Before Savarese’s arrival, RSL was 12-4-7 in all competitions against Portland.
Perhaps most famously, too, RSL completely derailed what could have been a storybook 2013 for the Timbers. Despite Portland finishing first in the Western Conference and making the postseason for the first time, the Timbers went 0-4-2 against Real Salt Lake that season, ultimately being eliminated from U.S. Open Cup and the MLS Cup playoffs by head coach Jason Kreis’ team.
The extent to which any of that matters on Saturday, when RSL returns to Providence Park (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, FOX 12 Plus (KPDX)), is debatable. But the two teams have history – a unique one, considering the close ties the teams have off the field. The front offices have frequently leveraged the partnership they have with each other, perhaps most famously in bringing a National Women’s Soccer League team to Utah, while the presence of people like Ned Grabavoy, Nat Borchers and Miles Joseph – all former RSL players or coaches – within the Timbers organization speaks to commonalities between the two organization’s cultures.
Ahead of the teams’ next meeting, both squads find themselves at potential inflection points within their seasons: RSL toward the good; Portland with a need to regroup. Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report, three questions that are fundamental to this weekend’s matchup:
What’s new under Juarez?
It might prove a bit misleading to say this moment is RSL’s 2019 inflection point. More accurately: August 12, the day the organization fired its former head coach, Mike Petke, and replaced him with the interim Freddy Juarez, was the turning point. Petke had been suspended two weeks before in the wake of an incident following a Leagues Cup match against Liga MX’s Tigres. Since, Real Salt Lake is 4-1-1, has climbed from the playoffs’ fringes to the West’s second place, and is playing as if the squad has a new lease on their season.
We’ve seen similar turnarounds in Colorado, where the Rapids were revitalized after replacing Anthony Hudson with Conor Casey (and, since, Robin Fraser), as well as in New England, where Bruce Arena salvaged the Revolution’s season in the wake of Brad Friedel's dismissal. Sometimes, teams need a change, and even detached from the details of those situations, you can say there’s at least a correlation, if not a causation.
To the extent RSL is changed, though, a lot remains the same. Joseph, a former assistant under Kreis who is now on Savarese’s staff in Portland, told Talk Timbers this week that the team, on the field, has been largely the same. Likewise off the field, players have told local Salt Lake outlets that little has changed within the team’s culture. The only thing that’s changed, Juarez has alluded, is the voice before games.
Undoubtedly, that undersells things a little, but not without reason. Right now Real Salt Lake is playing like a team that needed a patch, not a makeover. They’re playing like the best RSL team the Timbers have faced since Savarese took over.
Who’s healthy for the Timbers?
If their injuries were evenly distributed through the roster, the Timbers would probably be fine. After all, in terms of their depth chart, the team has multiple, viable options at each position. Start stacking up three, four, or five injuries at one or two points of the field, though, and you have problems. And right now, the Timbers have problems.
In central defense, Larrys Mabiala is still out (left thigh). Julio Cascante will join him on the sideline (left thigh), while now, people have started to notice: Modou Jadama hasn’t played a game for T2 in over a month. The healthy options on the team’s center-back depth chart are down to two: Bill Tuiloma and Claude Dielna.
Normally, Zarek Valentin (leg) would be listed at that position, too, albeit as one of the last options. After last Friday’s game against Seattle, though, his versatility might be compromised by a hamstring problem. He’s currently considered questionable for Saturday’s game. Marco Farfan, too, is still out, leaving the team with two healthy options at fullback: Jorges Moreira and Villafaña.
The rest of the team is at full strength (save a leg injury to Cristian Paredes, and Jeff Attinella's long-term absence), with the questions about who will start at right wing (Jeremy Ebobisse or Marvin Loría) and in midfield next to Diego Chara the same as we’ve considered in the previous weeks. The health of the backline, though, may leave Savarese and his staff few options.
What’s the key to a Portland turnaround?
As much as we talked about process in this week’s Inside PTFC, the biggest key to righting the team’s course may be an obvious one. Two weeks ago against Atlanta United FC, Portland gave up a goal in the 14th minute, never led, fell at home. Last Friday against Seattle, the Timbers gave up a 23rd minute goal, never led, fell at home. One explanation for that may be that Portland just isn’t that good, but we have a lot of evidence (even within those games) to suggest that’s too harsh. A more reasonable explanation: the team needs to tighten it up.
By “tighten it up,” I mean not take things for granted. There is an edge the Timbers have when they’re dialed in that keeps those early mistakes from happening. That’s why those early goals over the last two games have carried a level of shock. They're things that didn't happen when, earlier this season, the team’s back was against the wall and they had to salvage their early-season road run. They didn’t happen last year, when the team had to “tighten it up” and surge into the playoffs, and it didn’t happen as the team progressed to its second MLS Cup final.
It may not be reasonable to expect every team to maintain that focus throughout an entire season, even if some do. It is reasonable, though, to expect a team to respond when it needs to. After two straight losses at home, Portland needs to respond.