Portland take on Real Salt Lake tonight at Jeld Wen Field with the carrot of replacing RSL at the league hanging on the end of a long stick.
You would think that such a fact would make this match the talk of both towns, especially in Oregon where the team is outperforming all expectations in its third season. Going top of the entire pack of 19 should surely be the stuff of obsessional dreams for their fans.
For their part, Salt Lake have an opportunity to create massive space, at least by the standards of this season, between themselves and the rest of the pack and put a brake on one of their most persistent chasers in the process.
But this does not seem to be the case. Both clubs seem to be more focused on another match just a little, one side on a match already played and the other side on match to play.
Starting with the latter, the chat of most of the fanboards appears to be Sunday’s visit to Seattle where Portland will take on their local rivals in front of more than 68,000 spectators. The Lakers are still dealing with the shock of that second half in Los Angeles where they conceded four goals in half an hour and looked several shades worse than mediocre.
That match alone does not sum up their drift. They also conceded four against the Red Bulls making it 12 in their last five league games. Their sole win (and clean sheet) in that run was the fortunate 1-0 win over Houston where a weak penalty call rescued them.
Outside of that, they haven’t beaten a top half side since June 8th, and doubts are beginning to ferment (or foment) despite their status as narrow Supporters Shield leaders. Their confidence collapsed completely after Keane’s first goal exposed Carlos Salcedo’s inexperience.
Only Wingert’s excellent use of his chest prevented another goal within a minute. Kyle Beckerman was cautioned for arguing in the wake of that incident and will miss the game in Portland because of it. Keeper Nick Rimando was thereafter used as target practice.
“They looked fresh, sharp, and we weren’t”, commented the RSL keeper after the match adding:
“You gotta get off your shoulders and move on. The worst thing to do is just let it dwell on you and take over what we’ve done so well during this whole season and there’s a reason why we’re top of the table, but playing a good team like that we gotta play our best to beat them.”
Olmes Garcia was rested and used as a sub against LA, replacing the invisible Luis Gil in the 74th minute. Ditto Robbie Findley who came on for Saborio in the 65th. With Beckerman missing and Salcedo’s confidence shattered. expect some considerable tinkering from Jason Kreis to steady the ship.Portland’s challenge is to stay focused. They were impressive against Dallas and deserved a better scoreline than even the 2-1 victory suggested.
Ben Zemanski is available and he may be given another start at left midfield to allow Will Johnson’s shoulder four more days to heal after his outstanding performance against Dallas. Ryan Johnson played just over seventy minutes on Saturday. With Frederic Piquionne seemingly available, coach Caleb Porter has some interesting decisions to make.
One could make the case that RSL are probably going to make the play-offs anyway but beating the Sounders puts a massive spoke in the works of one of the few sides who could legitimately displace the Timbers in the top five, on top of all the issues concerning local bragging rights.
Alternatively, he could take the view that RSL are low on confidence and that this is a chance to go top of the league and therefore play the best eleven he can muster. On the Will Johnson issue specifically, while the Canadian may yearn to play against his former club, the deep knowledge the likes of Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran have of his game, may push Porter towards allowing Zemanski to retain his place.
Johnson, Piquionne and Jack Jewsbury are listed as ‘questionable’ which tells us very little about their fitness.
Another advantage of keeping Zemanski is the ex-Chivas midfielder would not be expected to play in Seattle and could happily accrue a yellow card tonight if such a foul were needed. Diego Chara being on a yellow is a risk Porter will probably just have to take, although resting him for the Seattle trip and moving Zemanski inside would battle with the possibility of recalling Jewsbury (if fit) as alternatives. Pa Modou Kah is also one yellow away from watching the Cascadia derby as a spectator.
Kalif Alhassan with his impressive substitute minutes on Saturday may also be a man to exploit the loss of confidence in their opponents. He could always be yanked at half time if he’s playing rubbish.
One alternative point is that there is still no inevitability about RSL making the play-offs. A loss tonight would haul them so deep into the pack that they could feel the mint on Martin Rennie’s toothpaste glistening on the back of their necks.
The next five days of Timbers football could make the run in to the end of the regular season very interesting.
The only thing that is absolutely certain is that LA Galaxy will be in the play-offs.