Real Salt Lake once again stand in Portland’s path

The LA Galaxy were no help over the weekend. Portland’s back-to-back victories over San Jose have only left them where they started: one point behind Vancouver for the fifth and final playoff spot. Had LA been able to topple FC Dallas over the weekend, they would have left open the opportunity for both Portland and Vancouver to make the postseason, and a possible mouthwatering all-Cascadia playoff. Points for LA would have also helped stave off another Cascadian rival in the Supporters Shield race (we love Schadenfreude). Instead, Dallas won the game and clinched a playoff berth, leaving only one open spot.

Come Hades or high water, it will be Portland or Vancouver.

Portland’s destiny is as much in its own hands as it isn’t: they need to keep on winning, and hope Vancouver slips up. The Whitecaps travel to sinking San Jose on Saturday, so the focus is firmly on the massive tilt at Providence Park on Friday night. 

Enter: Real Salt Lake.

The Claret and Cobalt, forever a stout opponent, is the model of consistency in an inconsistent league. That accolade, however, was built on the foundation of five losing seasons worth of experience. This is Portland’s fourth MLS campaign. In their fourth season, Jason Kries’s squad finished 10-10-10, not unlike Portland’s current 11-9-12 record. In a Cascadia-free Western Conference, Salt Lake’s record was good enough for third place and a playoff spot, by two points.

As the Timbers try to pull off a similar feat—in a much more treacherous MLS universe—it is fitting that none other than RSL are the mighty mountain standing between Portland and redemption.

Major League Soccer is epic tale of disparate entities, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, all fighting for the same single crown, reminiscent of Game of Thrones. Thus, the mighty mountain of which we speak is not Wasatch Front, it’s Ser Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane, a powerful and seemingly insurmountable enemy, blocker of the glimmer of light Timbers faithful know lies ahead. 

Determined, attractive, and fueled by fiery emotion, the Timbers play the role of Oberyn Martell, the Viper, a slick and skilled fighter who sought out the Mountain – a man many times his size and strength, to avenge past atrocities. Portland thus face their old invincible nemesis, the team that knocked them out in the Conference Finals a year ago, needing three points.

The regular season finale in the Rose City will pit the plucky-but-determined Timbers, deprived of their Captain, against a well-oiled Timbers hurting machine, who could care less about their opponent’s struggles.

They are the Mountain, and the Timbers are the Viper. (Warning: ahead, there be spoilers)

A great fighter needs a great weapon, and Diego Valeri, in full MVP form, is Oberyn’s poison-tipped spear. The Argentine maestro has scored four goals in four matches, and eight in the last 12. Add his four assists, and Valeri has directly contributed to 12 goals in 12 games.

El Maestro received team-of-the-week accolades for his two-goal performance against San Jose, and has moved into MLS’s official MVP conversation. The four other candidates are all on teams with secure playoff spots.

Portland’s two previous matches with RSL—both in Utah—yielded a 1-0 defeat and a 3-1 victory. The latter was against a heavily-depleted Real side, missing Timbers tormenters Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, and Álvaro Saborio. Rimando, Saborio, and Joao Plata have all been away on international duty (Plata scored twice, Sabo once), but all are expected to play. Barring any last-minute injuries, Salt Lake will only be without one regular, defender Chris Schuler, who is listed as “doubtful” with a broken orbital bone.

Aside from the absent Captain, and a shutdown groin strain for Steve Zakuani, the Timbers are healthy. Caleb Porter’s XI that beat a shorthanded RSL looks fairly similar to what we expect to see on Friday, replacing only Will Johnson, McKenzie, and Jack Jewsbury. However, the RSL XI that defeated Portland back in mid-April will be similar to the one we see on Friday, but that Portland team started Khalif Alhassan and Futty, not to mention the out-of-favor Michael Harrington and Jewsbury. Fanendo Adi was still in Copenhagen and Liam Ridgewell was in West Bromwich.

Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafaña, late bloomers both, had yet to emerge as crucial cogs.

The dynamic Villafaña and Powell bring to the table has yet to be tested against Salt Lake’s tried-and-true system, and we have not seen how Liam Ridgewell’s presence affects the three-headed monster of  Saborio, Plata, and another Argentine maestro, Javier Morales.

Tough as they may be, Salt Lake (like Ser Gregor) are not infallible. Jeff Cassar’s men have lost three out of their last five, including a 1-0 at Chivas USA. This poor run of form last left Salt Lake just one point ahead of Dallas, precariously close to being sucked into the 4 vs. 5 playoff game. In short, this is not a throw-away game for a team with nothing left to play for. RSL, like the Timbers, have a lot of work left to do, and it is in many ways, as much a playoff game for them as it is for Portland.

Will Johnson would have really savored this one. 

Too many Timbers games have had endings that look like they were written by George R.R. Martin.

Like the Mountain and the Viper, this should be a real battle, and it will come down to who’s the last left standing. In the story, Oberyn’s over confidence lead to a gruesome demise. In the reality of an MLS playoff battle, the Timbers need to be solid and decisive, to grab a lead and not let go.

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