by Brennan Burns
The Portland Timbers travel to Utah to face Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday (6 PM, KPDX), a battle of two clubs aiming for consistency after mixed results in recent matches.
Portland, winners of three of their last six, come into this match invigorated by a win over the league leading San Jose Earthquakes, a gritty 2-1 win offering hope to the Timbers Army that their team is learning the art of closing out matches when holding a lead.
That capability will be vital against RSL, a club that waltzed out of the Fortress of Thorns with a 3-2 win in March, a loss punctuated by two late concessions that left the home support in a daze after watching their team turn a win into a loss in injury time.
At the time, Real looked the more resilient side that led the league just weeks ago, but a run of four games without a win sees their confidence shaken, particularly with two of those results atypical home losses. For a team that’s unaccustomed to defeat on their home turf, they’ve already matched the total for league defeats at Rio Tinto that they suffered all of last year.
A nil-nil draw at home to the Seattle Sounders on Independence Day was deemed an improvement following three straight setbacks, but RSL fans were left hungry for goals as the normally prolific scoring duo of Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola continued their drought for consecutive games.
The hosts would argue they were denied a legitimate goal deemed offside by the officials, but the goose egg in the scoring column is their only souvenir.
The offensive load will fall to Saborio in Espindola’s absence, the Argentine suspended for this match due to yellow card accumulation.
Captain Kyle Beckerman returned to the lineup against Seattle after serving his own one match suspension, his presence providing much needed leadership missing in the the 2-nil away loss to the Columbus Crew in the match prior.
His defensive steel will be needed against Portland, when switched on the Timbers are capable of scoring goals of both the sublime and the serendipitous variety. Danny Mwanga scored the former against San Jose, combining superbly with Franck Songo’o to open the scoring with his debut goal, captain Jack Jewsbury scoring the latter, a hustler’s finish off a Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso intervention to earn the skipper his first tally of the season.
The Timbers can also concede them in equally discordant fashion, forfeiting three on the trot when they’re switched off, as they did at the Colorado Rapids on their last road trip. Which side shows up is a concern, particularly on the road in heat at high altitude.
If the fluid yet combative squad that reflects the city’s qualities and temperament is on display, its mind meld with the Timbers Army becomes a living, breathing force that overwhelms an opponent with sights, sounds, and scoring. While a healthy contingent of traveling supporters will be noticeably in attendance, they’ll be in enemy territory and it will be up to the team to invoke the disparity in energy from their home environs.
If the tentative, timid team sets out, Portland suffers another step in the wrong direction, a sordid return to self defeating ways.
Real repelled the forces at work in Portland, overcoming two brilliant goals from Darlington Nagbe, and whether the second year player earns another chance at redemption is up to manager John Spencer, who is posed with lineup questions with the arrival of right back Kosuke Kimara in a trade from the Rapids.
The placeholder for Kimura in defense is Jewsbury, who will certainly be rewarded for his dedication and matchwinnner with another start in his preferred midfield role. The return of Diego Chara from a one match suspension presents the dilemma, to keep all three on the field, one of the wingers must go.
Unfortunately for Man of the Match Songo’o, a strained hamstring that ended his evening early means he likely sits out, opening the door to Kalif Alhassan to resume the role of roving midfield maestro, recently returned from the same injury. Given the reign to roam sideline to sideline, the elusive Alhassan can prove dangerous while Chara and Jewsbury protect the rearguard, allowing the outside backs license to patrol the flanks.
The formational shift offers the conservatism the manager seeks defensively, while a trident of attackers lays siege to Real’s Nick Rimando in between the pipes to keep ailing Salt Lake defenders Jamison Olave and Tony Beltran honest. In response, RSL manager Jason Kreis is ready to deploy the ever inventive Javier Morales on Portland, the trifecta in Real’s triangular assault.
Futty will come back in alongside David Horst at centerback, the duo showing a growing symmetry, Hanyer Mosquera available after his return from a three match suspension and ready to step in should a starter slip up.
For RSL, the best name in MLS Jonny Steele is a danger in both producing and provision, Ned Grabavoy another defensive specialist to complement Beckerman. If Portland needs to counter these threats, they can also bring Sal Zizzo or Eric Alexander off the bench, both players offering lively sparks in reserve.
While Portland too often finds itself trailing on the road, as it did in a draw at Real to end the season last year, the Timbers equalized in that match, so there are no ghosts to exorcise there. If the sting of the home loss this spring isn’t enough motivation to inspire Portland’s attacking venom, there’s little chance Spencer could offer more incentive to his players.
Spencer’s opportunity is to take the match to RSL, denying them the opportunity to establish the rhythm of their systemic passing in the opening stages. Should the Timbers put Salt Lake on its heels early, it will be the hosts chasing a game in which Kreis will desperately try to regain control.
The style may need to be gritty and direct, but pretty is in the eye of the beer holder. If Portland can take full points off Real in Utah, there will be few in the Rose City arguing whether it was pretty or gritty or both.