The Portland Timbers (11-4D-11, 37 pts, 8th in West) and Real Salt Lake (13-4D-10, 43 pts, 2nd in West) will meet in a classic late-season Saturday night showdown at Providence Park.
- Time: Saturday, August 31st @ 7:30pm PT
- Location: Providence Park, Portland, OR
- TV: FOX 12 Plus (channel 49)
As you probably know, this match has huge implications beyond simply extending a mini unbeaten streak or avenging the legendary 2013 squad. A quick look at the Western Conference standings reveal 8th place Portland trails 2nd place RSL by only six points. I feel like a broken record when I mention Portland’s game in hand, but it only means something if they can capitalize on it. Two straight home defeats on national television and an injuries to both starting center backs didn’t do much to help that cause.
A couple weeks ago, I looked at FiveThirtyEight’s MLS predictions for the Timbers, which gave them a 90% chance to make the playoffs. While that number is down, 83% is still a pretty good shot. The bigger question lies in what position the Timbers will finish. An expanded playoff format guarantees home field advantage for the top four teams in each conference, but Portland still has work to do:
|Timbers final position in Western Conference standings||FiveThirtyEight Probability (%)|
|8th or less (missing playoffs)||18%|
- *=home playoff match guaranteed
- **=away match in 1st round
This only adds to the stress of the match for the Timbers, who already need this win badly.
On the Iron Front front
As you also probably know, there has been a much bigger issue raging in the background of these last few matches: while the Iron Front ban protest was certainly noticed, neither the league nor the Timbers Army seem keen to give up their side. Owner Merritt Paulson mildly evaded a question about fan safety to re-hash the issue of the flag’s political nature during a Portland Thorns Q&A, while the TA has stated they are in “ongoing talks” with the Timbers front office. This writer stands with the Timbers Army and hopes that the ban is rescinded soon.
Other Noteworthy Matches
Before we get to the match at hand, there are a couple of other critical matches you might want to be aware of before the Timbers kick off at 7:30. If college football isn’t your thing (and you have ESPN+), definitely check out these first two:
- Cincinnati @ Dallas, 4:00 PT
- FC Dallas is currently sitting on 40 points (three ahead of the Timbers), but they have also played two more matches. This should be an easy win for Dallas at home against the worst team in MLS, but we’ve seen crazier things happen in MLS. Root for Cincy!
- Houston @ Kansas City, 4:30 PT
- Don’t look now, but if Portland slips up in the remaining matches, these two sides will be nipping at their heels, especially Kansas City. SKC is within three points of the Timbers, and although Portland does have a game in hand, two remaining meetings with KC could make the playoff race trickier than expected. Root for a draw or Houston win!
- Orlando City @ San Jose, 7:30 PT
- This match will start at the same time as Portland’s, but keep an eye on San Jose, who are one of the teams Portland are chasing in the Western Conference standings. Root for Orlando!
- LA Galaxy @ Seattle, 2:30 PT Sunday
- Take a look at this matchup if you find time Sunday. The performances of both these teams will be critical to Portland’s playoff position. Root for a draw, although seeing either of these teams lose will surely bring a wry smile.
Ok, onto the match itself. In order to win this match, Portland will need to stop Albert Rusnák. The Slovak #11 pulls the strings for RSL’s attack, and if RSL sits deep to absorb pressure (more on that later), his creativity is deadly on the counter-attack. Luckily, the Timbers have Diego Chará, who is more than capable. Who they won’t have, though, is Larrys Mabiala and Julio Cascante. During the bulk of the regular season, this duo was the preferred starting center back pairing for head coach Giovanni Savarese—although I still prefer Tuiloma over Cascante when both are healthy.
Replacement Claude Dielna has had his fair share of mistakes, but he has also had some solid matches, most notably against NYCFC, Orlando City, and Colorado. It should be noted that Dielna’s weakness, though, is his lack of pace. This was exploited quite easily by Mason Toye and Minnesota United earlier this month. If RSL does end up finding space on the counter, things will be a lot more nervy for Portland’s back line.
What curveball will Gio throw us this week? Last week we had Marvin Loría starting over Jeremy Ebobisse and Zarek Valentin getting the nod over an injured Jorge Moreira. Now, Valentin is questionable with a hamstring injury and the Timbers find themselves with four healthy players on the back line (at least it makes my prediction easier). In the midfield, Cristhian Paredes should get the start next to Chará, but there have been rumblings of a leg injury that would undoubtedly see Renzo Zambrano get the start. In the attack, there have been some proponents of seeing Brian Fernández play out on the wing, but these pipe dreams were mostly dismissed by Gio’s comments in training. With rest no longer a factor (for now), I expect the lineup to look like this:
- Scoring against a low block: It’s no secret that Portland has had their fair share of trouble against defenses that stay compact and look to counter-attack. It’s how the Timbers made it to MLS Cup last year, and it’s how teams have been grabbing points from them this year. Hopefully getting Moreira back will help attack wide areas and exploit a back line that has given up only 34 goals this season.
- Scoring the first goal: I know, duh. You want your team to score all the goals, not just the first one. But conceding the first goal buried the Timbers in their last two losses. I guess this key should read: Score before the other team, or if you don’t, don’t let yourself keep playing poorly.
- Keeping things tidy on the back line: The last (and only) time Dielna and Tuiloma started together, it was part of a 5-man back line designed to stop Zlatan Ibrahimovic that went…poorly. This will be a big experiment, and I wouldn’t be that surprised to see a—dare I say it—back three at some point on Saturday. Salt Lake will be licking their chops at the thought of attacking this back four, and it could be a massive game for Steve Clark between the sticks.
RSL’s strategy should be to sit back and take what the Timbers give them on the counter. They are facing a pair of questionable center backs in Cascante and Dielna, and suddenly Sam Johnson’s nine goals in 20 appearances look even more impressive. HOWEVER, I think Portland wins this match because Real Salt Lake comes out of their shell and tries to compete. As long as the back line avoids any egregious errors, I think this should be a classic home win for the Timbers.
After a lengthy delay, my friend Reece and I have finally released the first episode of the Double Post Podcast! Check us out on Soundcloud and Twitter to keep up with all the hottest takes in the Timbers community.
As always, thanks for reading and go Timbers!