This may be the key contrast for the Portland Timbers ahead of Wednesday’s visit to Real Salt Lake (6:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS): the team’s current form versus the performance during the final minutes of the teams’ last meeting.
That current form has Major League Soccer’s Western Conference co-leaders on their longest winning streak in two years, having won five in a row as part of a 6-1-1 run that has vaulted them from the middle of the standings.
Shortly before that run started, though, Real Salt Lake took a shock point on August 29 at Providence Park – shocking not because RSL is incapable of that result, but because of the way they achieved it. Down two goals headed into second-half stoppage time, Freddy Juarez’s team scored twice over the match’s final minutes, earning a 4-4 draw in Portland when, only minutes earlier, they looked destined to lose.
“Of course, we learn from previous games,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese explained, “and we know these games are going to be difficult, but there are some things that we need to be aware [of].
“The first half of that match against RSL, it was a difficult match. We had to chase a little bit ... We found good goals at the right moments, but they moved the ball well, and then they were targeting something that we needed to be a little bit better [on].”
That “something” ended but being a basic tactic. On three of Real Salt Lake’s four goals, the visitors played crosses toward the middle of goal or toward Portland’s far post. The test was simple: See if the Timbers could win the battle in the air and, if not, whether Portland would clear a second ball from a dangerous spot. On three occasions, including the game’s final goal, the Timbers came up short.
It was the type of deficiency that jumps off the screen in a video review – the type other teams are destined to test. Since that match, though, Portland has given up 12 goals in nine games, and while that rate isn’t world-beating, the Timbers’ more recent results have been slightly better. Over their last six matches, the team has conceded five times, and they have allowed multiple goals in a game only once.
Despite that improvement, the last RSL game has left a “bad taste” in Portland’s mouths, according to Savarese. The players have kept that disappointment in their minds, too.
"That was a difficult match,” winger Marvin Loría conceded, when asked about the 4-4 draw. “We didn’t keep much possession, and in the end, in the last minutes, we conceded two goals.
“That’s on our minds. We have to learn from that. Now, we’ve got to go and prove we can beat them.”
When Savarese looks back at that August draw, he sees elements his team can control, a view that’s not only about the tactics RSL used in Portland but the silver linings in his team’s performance. “We created so many opportunities,” he remembered, while rueing his team’s late, missed chances to put the match out of reach.
“We know that, at the end – [and] we've seen it through all the games that we have watched them play – they throw a lot of [players into attack] at the end of the game,” he explained. “We can expect they are going to throw everything, trying to make sure they create opportunities and dangerous situations offensively.
“But also … we could have put more goals away to make sure we could finish the game earlier. We let them still be alive in the game, and at the end, those two goals in a matter of a few minutes gave us a bad taste, which we understand very well. We're going to make sure that we prevent those types of situations.”