The Timbers have accomplished a lot in three seasons in Major League Soccer. They have finished on top of the Western Conference, qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, won the Cascadia Cup, and knocked hated Seattle out of the playoffs.
But as Portland found out last year, the road to MLS Cup tends to run through Salt Lake City, and one important task the Timbers have yet to accomplish is to defeat RSL in Utah. Portland’s lone home victory was back in 2011, which hardly balances out the other three draws and six losses. At Rio Tinto Stadium, the aggregate score is 14-6 in favor of the home team.
On Saturday, the Timbers return to “The RioT” for the first time since a 4-2 playoff defeat last season, to face a banged-up RSL side (6:30 pm, KPTV.) Injuries have placed doubts on the status of a number of key cogs in RSL’s wheel, including USMNT regular, and arguably the best keeper in MLS, Nick Rimando, who suffered an MCL injury while on national team duty and has missed the last two matches. In doubt as well are forward Joao Plata, who has missed the last three matches, and midfielder Luis Gil. Both returned to full training this week, but will surely face a fitness test before being included in the full squad. Another USA veteran, forward Robbie Findley, hasn’t even dressed. As a whole, 14 of the 28-player roster have missed at least one game of this young season, yet RSL are currently the only undefeated team in MLS, sitting on 10 points, in a three team clump behind surprise early leaders, FC Dallas.
And that’s just the thing about RSL: they don’t lose personnel, they replace and move forward. Consistency is as much a part of the RSL story as their ubiquitous anthem, “Believe”, which is pumped in at mind-numbing volume before each half, after every home goal, and will invade your nightmares (click at your own risk.)
Perhaps the biggest loss of them all was longtime successful manager, Jason Kries, gone to the piles of cash offered by the 2015 expansion team New York City FC. But new coach Jeff Cassar—a member of Kries’s staff since 2007—offers continuity, is tactically a like-for-like replacement, and inherits an exceptionally-strong core from top to bottom. The back line returns three regulars, Nat Borchers (151 appearances), Tony Beltran (137), and Chris Wingert (171). The midfield, even without Gil or Plata, boasts the duo of Argentine ace Javier Morales and USMNT stalwart Kyle Beckerman, who are as good as it gets in MLS.
In many ways, RSL is a model MLS franchise, a small market success story, who quietly have built a winning culture, bigger than any player or coach, while playing attractive, attacking football. Think of them as the MLS equivalent of the San Antonio Spurs. This system of replaceable parts allows for the kind of “hit the ground running” consistency Portland strives for, but have yet to fully achieve.
Consider this weekend an opportunity. The injury bug that has bitten Salt Lake is a welcome gift to the Timbers. If Portland are to have a chance to succeed this weekend, they must take advantage of having a fully healthy midfield. For argument’s sake, if Valeri and Will Johnson cancel out Morales and Beckerman, Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe should outclass Ned Grabavoy and fill-in Luke Mulholland. The Timbers’ midfield haven’t clicked together for a full 90’ yet, but if they do, it gives Portland a distinct advantage, and a chance to control the flow of play.
The counterpoint (almost a cliché now, five disappointing games into the season) is Portland’s back four, who have yet another load on their hands, question marks hovering over their heads, and thousands of angry fingers pointed in their direction. The challenge this time might be the biggest yet: certified Timbers Killer, Alvaro Saborio. In ten matches against Portland, Saborio has scored six times, including a hat trick in 2012, which effectively ended John Spencer’s reign as Portland’s manager. Who will be defending Saborio et all is widely up for debate. Does Paparatto get another chance, or does the Great Wall of Gambia, with familiarity on their side, get the nod? Does offensively-talented but defensively liable Alvas Powell start over the slower, steadier salty dog, Jack Jewsbury?
Your guess is as good as any, but the reality is, Portland have taken one sole point in five attempts at Rio Tinto. As much as we all would be—sad to say—satisfied with the Timbers’ old frenemy, the draw, Caleb Porter could really earn his money this week with three points.