BEAVERTON, Ore. – Most of the Portland Timbers’ last two months has been focused on this moment, one where the team could forget the ups and downs of an inconsistent regular season and focus on what their campaign would always be about. Too many games on the road, then, perhaps, too many games at home – none of it matters come the second season. And on Saturday in Sandy, Utah, that second season officially starts (7pm PT, ESPNews).
For the third-straight year, the Timbers are in the MLS Cup Playoffs, only whereas in 2018 there was a sense of magic to the team’s dash through the Western Conference, this postseason has arrived with expectations, a standard born of what happened before. Winning as the lower seed in three rounds last year, Portland proved life as the underdog need not be an obstacle. Should the Timbers settle for anything less this time around?
In the big picture, perhaps not, with potential, future matchups against Seattle Sounders FC and FC Dallas seeding visions of another conference final. First, though, is a Real Salt Lake team that not only finished higher than Portland in the regular season but also has the advantage of playing Sunday’s win-or-else conference quarterfinal at home.
Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:
Combustible to consistent: Real Salt Lake’s form
Record: 16-13-15 (53 points, third in MLS’ Western Conference)
Goals for: 46 (18th out of 24 in MLS)
Goals against: 41 (3rd-fewest in MLS)
Goal difference: +5 (8th in MLS
Most of Real Salt Lake’s realities have remained consistent since the team changed coaches this summer. The team’s formations haven’t changed, nor have most of the markers of their style. But whereas RSL’s tactics, before, seemed to alternate between assertive and reactionary, Freddy Juarez’s spell as head coach has proved more consistent. Some have implied the team is more conservative about how they want to retain, build, and manipulate play; others would just call it control.
With only 46 goals scored, Real Salt Lake has the worst attack of the surviving teams in the Western Conference. The trade-off, though, has led to a defense that is among the best in Major League Soccer. Only Los Angeles FC and D.C. United allowed fewer goals (41), this season.
Under Mike Petke, there was a more swashbuckling approach to Real Salt Lake’s play, something that could both pounce on an opponent’s weakness as well as leave his team exposed. Swashbuckling, though, isn’t the type of identity that typically allows for growth. It leaves you at the whim of tactical die rolls.
Juarez, conversely, has given RSL an identity to build on. Perhaps the team is more predictable, but predictably, they’ve become a more difficult foe.
Recent history: Waiting to break through against Gio
Last game: 1-0 Portland win at Providence Park on August 31
All-time: RSL is 11-9-7 versus Portland
Long-time Timbers fans may remember RSL as a type of bane, particularly from a 2013 season where, between league play and U.S. Open Cup, the Claret and Cobalt went 4-0-2 against Portland. But as often as that factoid has been resurrected in recent years, so too are people bringing up a fact that’s equally annoying to RSL. Over the four games between the teams since Giovanni Savarese took over in Portland, RSL has failed to take a point from the Timbers.
That fact actually understates the dynamic between the clubs. It’s not just that the Timbers have beaten RSL of late. They’re outscored them 10-2 since Savarese’s arrival. Even in February’s preseason Mobile Mini Sun Cup in Tucson, Arizona, the Timbers got the better of Salt Lake, defeating them 3-0. As much as RSL owned Portland before, the Timbers own Real, now.
Focus player: Everton Luiz, midfielder, Real Salt Lake
Season: 27 games, no goals, two assists, 2.7 tackles per game
All-time: First season in MLS
Real Salt Lake made the second round of last year’s Western Conference playoffs with a team that looks remarkably similar to what’s worked this season. The biggest change, though, is somebody who has possibly been the team’s best player – somebody that has RSL fans evoking MLS memories of Portland’s Diego Chara.
Everton Luiz joined the team this preseason from SPAL in Italy’s Serie A, originally arriving on a loan but having signed a permanent deal this June. A mobile central midfielder who’s often deployed next to the legendary Kyle Beckerman, the 31-year-old Brazilian has provided a space-eating, all-around presence that’s knitted the team together, not only from backline to attack but also across the width of the field.
Like Chara, though, Luiz’s contributions tend to elude the stat sheet, leaving RSL fans to make a case that goes beyond highlights and moments. With no goals and only two assists in his first MLS season, it’s easy to confuse the veteran’s profile for that of a replaceable midfielder. But in his team-leading 2.7 tackles per game, as well as the 86.7 percent completion rate he’s had on his passes, Luiz is doing the little things than can be seen, even in the numbers, if you’re willing to look below the surface.
Along with his team’s new approach, Luiz is the biggest reason why RSL should prove a tougher out than last season.
Focus matchup: Jorge Moreira versus the left side of RSL
Last week we chose to focus on his defensive contributions, not only because of how important they were in the season finale against the San Jose Earthquakes but also because there’s never been a doubt about his attacking value. From the moment he was integrated into his new team, Portland right back Jorge Moreira drastically changed how the Timbers used width over the length of the field, and as the season’s progressed, Portland’s only gotten more used to having a more dynamic option.
How much teams want to account for Moreira always presents a tactical conundrum. Start moving players to offset his presence and you open up space for players like Sebastián Blanco, Diego Valeri, or other options through the middle. As valuable as Moreira can be from his fullback position, it’s often better to let him have his space instead of ceding room to Portland’s best attacking options. Yet if you don’t account for him at all, you’re essentially gifting the Timbers an extra player in attack, something that’s directly led to a number of Portland goals.
The responsibility for containing that should fall to RSL’s Corey Baird; or, if Juarez doesn’t start the Stanford product on the left, Albert Rusnak will likely begin in a wide position. Regardless, tracking Moreira’s movements closely could mean depriving your team of an attacker, putting more of the scoring emphasis on Demir Kreilach, Jefferson Savarino and, if he’s in the lineup, Sam Johnson. Those are all capable players, but for a team has only scored two goals against Portland in their last 360 competitive minutes, depriving the attack of a player would be a major blow.
These are the types of conundrums Moreira creates, part of the reason the Timbers put such a priority on acquiring a player like him in the offseason. While his defensive role was in focus against San Jose, his attacking presence is most potent.
As for the Timbers …
Though the biggest focus from the outside is on whether the team’s captain, Valeri, will be healthy enough to play, the lingering, perhaps more important question comes down to the reputation the Timbers have crafted for themselves. With their surprise run through last year’s Western Conference, Portland rekindled memories of 2015, when the team came out of nowhere to claim MLS Cup. And while a fast-changing league makes 2015 feel like eons ago, the reputation around the team lingers. How many teams really want to face Portland when it’s time for the playoffs?
In terms of the story around the Timbers, it’s a compelling question, one that implies there’s something about teams that can make them more dangerous than regular season results imply. Still, there’s that little matter of actually proving, on the field, that your reputation still holds value. Perhaps the Timbers were potent in 2015, and last postseason, they replicated that form, but if none of that play translates to the 2019 playoffs, what is that reputation’s worth?
No matter what, the Timbers are going to have to reach a certain level this postseason – the level they imagined when this roster was put together this offseason. Then, the organization had designs on competing for another MLS Cup. Whether that’s consistent with the team’s reputation won’t matter three weeks from now. All that will matter are the results.