In the last two seasons, Real Salt Lake has simply struggled against the Portland Timbers.
So when RSL begins its playoff run against Portland on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium, it will have to contend with a team that it hasn’t beaten since September 2017 and has a 10-2 scoring advantage in the previous four matchups.
RSL will be at home, where it boasted a 12-4-1 record. On the other hand, Portland won six road games in the regular season — second-most of any Western Conference playoff team — in a year that forced the Timbers to play their first 12 games on the road due to renovations at Providence Park.
And even though Real finished third in the West and the Timber sixth, only four points separated them in the standings, making the matchup is closer that in appears.
“They’ve had our number a bit,” forward Corey Baird said. “But I think throughout this year, I think we’ve seen improvements in the games we’ve played against them.”
The results back up Baird’s point. RSL lost just 2-1 in May and 1-0 in August. In the latter game, Salt Lake had plenty of opportunities to tie the game and were the better team overall, but could not finish its chances. It was a far cry from the home game in May, where RSL players and coaches were deeply disappointed about various aspects of the team’s play.
So what is it about the Timbers that make the not only difficult team for RSL to play against, but formidable overall? The first glaring reason would be their talent. With players like Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse, Portland has one of the more talented teams in Major League Soccer, per one mlssoccer.com observer.
“They're probably a top-four team in the league in terms of raw talent,” analyst Matthew Doyle said.
MLS CUP PLAYOFFS
PORTLAND AT RSL
When • Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • ESPNews
In Doyle’s opinion, that star power has made the difference in recent games between RSL and Portland. He agreed that in their August game, Real were the better team. But, “the team with Valeri won,” he said.
Nat Borchers, a Timbers broadcaster and former RSL player, said Portland’s two most important players are Valeri and Blanco, who have 14 goals and 27 assists between them.
“Those two guys are always going to be in between lines trying to create that final ball, trying to score that goal,” Borchers said. “It’s amazing to have two guys like that.”
But the team’s most underrated piece seems to be Ebobisse. He’s tied for the most goals this season with Brian Fernandez, who has 11, and done it by playing both on the wing and at center forward.
“When the Timbers have needed a big-time goal or moment, he seems to come up with it,” Borchers said of Ebobisse.
RSL intern coach Freddy Juarez said when it comes to preparing for a Timbers team with various dangerous players, the key is to be ready for everything.
“We’ll prep for all of that,” Juarez said. “It’s not like when I was in youth soccer where they had one big guy who’s taller than everyone and we can put our big guy on him and kind of scratch him out. It’s going to be a collective.”
Juarez said he feels confident about the team’s defensive shape this season and how well it’s been doing on that side of the field lately. He also said RSL has plenty of its own players that are dynamic — like Albert Rusnák, Damir Kreilach, Sam Johnson, Baird, Jefferson Savarino, Joao Plata and Sebastian Saucedo.
“Those, for my liking, are guys that can make a difference in games,” Juarez said.
Portland will be without one of its best players in Brian Fernandez, who earlier this month voluntary entered the league’s substance abuse and behavioral health program. He won’t be allowed to return to the field until he’s cleared by the program’s doctors and he’s undergone an assessment, per The Oregonian.
But Valeri, who missed Portland’s final two games due to a calf injury, will be available, per The Oregonian. Valeri has also been through some off-the-field difficulties, as he and the club recently reached in impasse in contract negotiations.
In terms of Portland’s style of play, Juarez said it’s similar to most teams across the league — lots of possession with a desire to counter. He also said the Timbers have experimented with various formations throughout the season, including 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1, and 4-4-2 diamond. All those formations overload the midfield, giving Portland the opportunity to move the ball quick through that part of the field and counter.
Borchers said the Timbers can do that because of the team’s overall experience.
“I think when you have experience, you can plug guys into formations and they can understand their roles,” Borchers said.
On the other hand, Bobby Warshaw, soccer analyst for MLSsoccer.com, thinks Portland has been somewhat confusing on the field in 2019.
“Portland are a tough team to describe because they don’t have any discernible traits or patterns,” Warshaw said. “The last two years have mostly gone like this: they go through stretches as a counter attacking team, they get good at it and win." Then, he added, then try to do and be more because sitting and countering isn’t fun. That, Warshaw said, is when the Timbers struggle.
Regardless what Portland team shows up at Rio Tinto on Saturday, RSL feels prepared to face it.
“We know what they’re good at,” goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. “We just have to make sure that we’re balanced, organized and prepared or any of those counter attacks.”