RSL Soapbox: Is this the most important game of the year for the Timbers?
Stumptown Footy: Yes. Though that could have been said in each of the past few games, to be fair. But this is really the big one now with only a trip to FC Dallas remaining in league play after Friday night. If the Timbers lose and the Vancouver Whitecaps beat the San Jose Earthquakes, the season is over for Portland. Having the game at Providence Park instead of Rio Tinto Stadium is definitely an advantage for the Timbers, as they have only once ever beaten RSL in Utah (in fact it was the last meeting, on June 7). Yet over the years we've seen even the considerable home field advantage Portland possesses is not necessarily enough to hold of Real Salt Lake. This is as big as it gets for the Timbers, or at least until next week.
RSL Soapbox: Real Salt Lake knows just how important of a player Will Johnson is. Does losing Will Johnson put the Timber's season in jeopardy? Is there another player that would be a bigger loss?
Stumptown Footy: Losing Diego Valeri would be a much more significant loss, even granting the fact that Gaston Fernandez has been quite a good player and would slip into that no. 10 role. But Valeri is amazing in general and is especially playing well right now. He's up to 11 goals and 14 assists, bettering his Newcomer of the Year-winning 10 goals/14 assists of a year ago. Johnson's absence, especially in his role as captain, is undeniably problematic for Portland but in truth his 2014 has not been anywhere near as strong as his 2013. Additionally, Ben Zemanski is a pretty capable replacement for Johnson within Caleb Porter's scheme. Not only is he familiar with the set up, having played for Porter at Akron, but Zemanski is more naturally defensively inclined than Johnson so it allows Porter to play a slightly more conservative version of his style, truly employing a "back six." That's not to suggest the Timbers are better off without Johnson, but a long-term absence for Valeri would be a much bigger issue for Portland.
RSL Soapbox: Who is the better keeper? Nick Rimando or Donovan Ricketts?
Stumptown Footy: Nick Rimando, without a doubt. Last season, Ricketts not only won Goalkeeper of the Year but probably deserved it, even though Rimando was also terrific. But this year Ricketts has just been a step slower (and having a crappy defense in front of him hasn't helped). One of the most underreported stories of this Timbers season is Ricketts' regression. Is he better than average right now? Probably. But he is in no way an elite goalkeeper at the level he was last year, and nowhere close to Rimando this year.
Questions from Stumptown Footy for RSL Soapbox
Stumptown Footy: Just how important is it to Real Salt Lake to finish third as opposed to fourth at this point?
RSL Soapbox: It is important, but it is not make or break. Real Salt Lake has quite a few starters that have been called upon for national duty or are simply over the age of 30 that could use that little bit of extra rest by skipping the wildcard game. I think it would do wonders particularly for Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando to get the extra few days to heal their bodies. Both of them are arguably RSL's best two players and have been through the ringer over the past year and a half between MLS play and national duty.
That said, if they end up in fourth place and have an extra game to play, it won't be the end of their chances in the Playoffs. The strength of their veteran-strong squad is that they are battle tested and know how to prepare for virtually every situation.
Stumptown Footy: RSL have had Nick Rimando, Joao Plata and Alvaro Saborio gone for national team duties. Any chance any of them miss Friday's night's game with the quick turnarounds?
RSL Soapbox: My assumption is that all three of them will be ready to play on Friday. The question becomes whether or not they will start the game. Joao Plata scored a brace for Ecuador so he will be brimming with confidence in his return. Alvaro Saborio scored for Costa Rica, and he can use all the goals he can get to break off some of the rust after his prolonged injury. And Nick Rimando is Nick Rimando, the best keeper in MLS. He has yet to lose with the U.S. Men's Team and had another good showing against Honduras. My best guess is that Rimando and Plata start while Saborio comes on in the second half, but Cassar keeps his cards pretty close to his chest.
Stumptown Footy: Where is RSL most vulnerable to Portland's (recently) thumping attack?
RSL Soapbox: For me it is all about Diego Valeri. The guy has proven that is one of the top players in MLS by scoring quality goals over and over again. The biggest concern facing Real Salt Lake at the moment is that Chris Schuler is out indefinitely with a broken face and nose. When he is on the field, the opposition scores at a much lower rate than when he is off the field. It is next to certain that Carlos Salcedo will replace Schuler for this game. Salcedo has been called in to the U-21 Mexican National Team pretty consistently, so he is not a bad player by any means but Schuler brings a different skill set and body strength. Either way, any time you shift around the defensive lineup, it gives an advantage to the opposing attack and in this case, I would bet that Diego Valeri will score at least one goal.
Expected XI: Rimando, Beltran, Salcedo, Borchers, Wingert, Beckerman, Grabavoy, Mulholland, Morales, Plata, Findley.