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Know Your Opponent | Timbers try to steady road form with season's only trip to Real Salt Lake

Most of the context around Real Salt Lake leads to similar conclusions.

They’re sixth in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference, a relatively average place in the standings. They’ve allowed 50 goals, conceded 50 goals, leading to a goal difference that is, by definition, average. They’re won 13 times, lost 11, something that hints they might be slightly above average, and given the team is on track to make the playoffs, their 2018 season still has a chance to be a successful one.

That is the overarching picture. The next layer, however, hints seeing Real Salt Lake as only one team may be too simplistic, because in a league that’s often defined by the differences between home and road, RSL’s play has been more divergent than most.

At Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL have posted a 10-1-4 record. Only New York City FC (11-1-4) have a better mark, and only because they’ve played one more game at home. Away from Sandy, Utah, though, RSL is 3-10-3, and while that’s not the worst road record in the league, the disparity between RSL’s home and road marks is the largest in MLS.

For Timbers fans looking in on Saturday game (6:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS), Portland’s only trip to Rio Tinto this season, that leaves a choice of how to view the world. Is head coach Mike Petke’s team a world-beater whose road record is irrelevant, since the teams will be playing in Utah? Or should the team’s broader record, home and road, be considered? Perhaps RSL isn’t truly as bad as they have been on the road, this season, but those 16 games might help round out the picture ahead of this weekend’s game.

Let’s apply the same question to the Timbers. Portland is 10-2-4 at home this year, a stellar record in Goose Hollow. But in recent games, the team has troubled to score against FC Dallas (0-0 draw, on Saturday) and had defensive issues against Columbus Crew SC (3-2 win, two-plus weeks ago). Are those the performances of a team that loses only twice in 16 games? By definition, they are, but we probably get a better idea of Portland’s reality if we also remember they’re 3-7-5 on the road.

If that road record combines with RSL’s home mark to foster doubts about this weekend, nobody can blame you, but the Timbers are still a team that’s gotten results, this season, at places like Atlanta United, FC Dallas and Los Angeles FC. They took three points in their only visit to CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Those results might be exceptions more than rules, but they speak to how the team can play when they’re performing well. All of those teams have been better, this year, than RSL. All of those teams have dropped points at home to Portland.

In that respect, the question may be less whether the Timbers can get a result at RSL than which Timbers team will show up. Will it be the one that put in strong performances at Atlanta, in Los Angeles, and at Seattle? Or will it be the more recent version, the one that lost 4-1 at Houston? Or the one that went into halftime down three goals to Minnesota before losing 3-2?

Portland is under no illusion that those results are good enough. As head coach Giovanni Savarese alluded in this week’s press conference, the team met in the wake of the Minnesota game to discuss their latest road result. Implied by that meeting: There is a recognition among the group that they can not only play better but, in bringing the views into the open, they should be expected to do so.

“We have analyzed some of the situations, and we had a very good meeting with the entire group to talk about this,” Savarese said. “We came to some very good conclusions that will help the team mentally approach certain things when we go away – some of the trends we have seen in these types of games.”

Salt Lake, however, is not your typical road trip. Not only has it proven a formidable trip when RSL is strong (as the Jason Kreis-versus-Caleb Porter era showed us), but the voyage is made more arduous by the altitude. Sandy may not be Denver, Colorado, but it sits 4,450 feet above sea level. Portland is only about 50 feet, or so.

As much as the challenges RSL’s personnel will pose the Timbers, that has to be a concern. It is one thing to break down tape of Petke’s team, identify strengths and weaknesses and come up with a plan to address them, but unlike games almost anywhere else, you also have to ask which players are best equipped to physically to meet the challenge? Who is ready for 90 minutes of work at Rio Tinto, and if the answer is less than 11, how many subs can you afford to burn?

“It is very important to pick the players that are going to be the most committed in regards to work,” Savarese said, when asked about the considerations for altitude. “A lot of the guys have played in Salt Lake many times, so they understand what they are going to face … it’s important for us to get there fresh and strong physically - and mentally, as well, with the ideas clear about what we are going to do.”

If you watch Real Salt Lake’s Sunday draw at Sporting Kansas City (a great result, for them), you see a lot of issues, more issues than you saw from Portland’s previous opponent, FC Dallas. That’s not surprising given Dallas is at the top of the Western Conference and, unlike RSL, they’re not starting three 21-year-olds in defense. The fact that Brooks Lennon (right back), Justen Glad (left-center back) and Aaron Herrera (left back) are starting together tells you the state of RSL’s project. The best days for their core are still well ahead of them.

In that sense, Portland’s success this weekend might be less about Real Salt Lake’s performance than about their own, as was the case in Houston and Minnesota. Play smart, play well, play close to your potential, and you’ll likely get a result reminiscent of games in Atlanta and Seattle. Play like you did in Houston and Minnesota, though – make mistakes that allow those teams to leverage their most dangerous components – and Real Salt Lake may soon have a home record that matches NYCFC’s.