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RSL v. Portland: Tactical Preview

RSL, Timbers could ignite the blaze in 2016 with the sparks that flew in preseason.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting on their first three points of the season, Real Salt Lake travels to Providence Park to take on the Defending MLS Cup Champs, the Portland Timbers. The RSL, Timbers matchup appears to be a powder keg ready to explode at a moment’s notice after a preseason tussle in Tucson saw both a man in red and a man in green sent to the bench – the preseason equivalent of taking the long walk to the locker rooms. As the rivalry continues to grow, RSL will attempt to take an early series lead and thus the initiative for the rest of the season in this 6-point Western Conference match.

Familiarity breeds contempt

The long – or not so long, depending on your own definition – experience between these two clubs has made each other very aware of the other’s faults as much as to be scornful. For example, the Claret-and-Cobalt has been historically dominant over Portland and now with Portland winning the last three meetings at Rio Tinto, the teams have become much more likely to break out in a brawl – as evident in the preseason match.

The squads are more similar, than they are not. Early in the Timber’s MLS history they, like RSL, focused on beautiful soccer, retaining possession and moving the ball forward with purpose. Now, both teams will concede possession in times that the counter-attack would be more effective. They have both become more adaptive to the individual situations that present themselves throughout the season instead of just sticking with a single game-plan.

Even minutely, the squads line-up eerily similar. They both play in a 4-3-3 formation in which the attack is driven by an Argentine Maestro, and the backline is shielded by a true No. 6. Both clubs employ speed, tricky players on the wing and relay on a pure goal-scoring No. 9 in the middle. Veterans along the backline shield the soccer smart goalies in net, and both coaches are relatively new to the professional game, each in their first tenures as a manager of a club. Lest we forget, Ned Grabavoy and Nat Borchers, one-time RSLers, are now Timbers as well.

Furthermore the season stats thus far are almost a mirror image of the other. Take a look:

Courtesy of MLSsoccer.com.
Courtesy of MLSsoccer.com.

While there are some notable differences, i.e., shots on goal, that could be chalked up to any one of numerous factors, including but not limited to the Timber’s loss last weekend to San Jose, or even the Demar Phillips red card in the first match of the season. Still, both clubs find themselves in a similar point going into the third match of the season.

The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without

With Timber’s Captain and defensive juggernaut Liam Ridgewell out 4-6 weeks with a hamstring injury, after a successful offseason loan stint back in England, the Timber’s defense has at times been found wanting. Just look at the Timber’s player influence map against the San Jose Earthquakes:

Courtesy of FourFourTwo's Stats Zone.

Now look specifically at Jermaine Taylor, Ridgewell’s replacement. See how high up the field he was when compared to Borchers? Well, to be honest that is nothing new to the Timber’s style of play just check out Ridgewell against the Columbus Crew SC on the opening weekend:

Courtesy of FourFourTwo's Stats Zone.

Both Taylor and Ridgewell play off the shoulder of Chara, feeding the ball into the attack but the difference is the Captain’s ability to recover. Against Columbus, Ridgewell performed 11 defensive actions and won 67 percent of his duels (i.e., aerial (headed), tackles, and take-ons). On the flip side, Taylor was often found on the wrong side of the opposition players and only completed 8 defensive actions and had an abysmal 20 percent duel winning average. So while Ridgewell would station himself between the opposition and his goal, Taylor would often play higher, finding himself between the opposition and their goal instead of his own. Just check out Chris Wondolowski’s goal:

See how Taylor is off the shoulder as Wondolowski streaks into the 6 yard-box? Well, that could become a common occurrence when playing him in the center defense.

San Jose’s passes leading up to the goal are rather simple coming off a blocked pass in the box and then recycled possession.

Starting at 29:06 with Fatai Alashe's (27) midfield pass and culminating in Wondo's goal in 29:36.
Courtesy of MLSsoccer.com and Opta.

When it comes down to it, the tactical wrinkles in Caleb Porter’s defense might be just what the doctor ordered for the RSL offense.

Playing a pure park the bus method last week, RSL can make a push to get in behind the opposition defense. With Taylor already playing high, the Claret-and-Cobalt could also exploit the Timber’s wingbacks who can get forward, but then have to make sprinting recovery runs in order to defend their own net. Open space is where RSL has thrived so far this year and the Timbers are simply allowing more of it this year.

Several other things to keep an eye on:

3. Portland Timbers acquired Darren Mattocks from the Vancouver Whitecaps. Joining a host of Jamaican Internationals and former college head coach (see Celeb Porter's Akron Zips), could Mattocks make his debut for Portland? His speed and technical skill has caused trouble for RSL in the past.

2. Darlington Nagbe's move to the center of the pitch has been a talking point since the chance wielded tangible results. Not only does Nagbe maintain an above 90 percent passing average but he excellent at closing down space in the midfield, and clogging up the center of the pitch.

Nagbe vs San Jose, 12 March 16.
Courtesy of Squawka.

1. Nat Borchers broke RSL fans' hearts with his move to Portland and then again when he scored the match winning goal on August 15, 2015.

Everyone at RSL misses the Beard but let's see if RSL can repay the favor at Providence Park.


Expected Lineups

Timbers (4-3-3)

GK: Kwarasey

DEF: Powell, Borchers, Taylor, Valentin

MID: Chara, Nagbe, Valeri (C)

ATT: Melano, Adi, Asprilla

RSL (4-3-3)

GK: Rimando

DEF: Beltran, Olave (quad injury - could open door for Glad), Maund, Phillips

MID: Beckerman, Sunny, Morales

ATT: Burrito, Movsisyan, Plata

Keys to the match:

Get behind Portland's offensive defense

Utilize the wings, over building through the middle

Out-muscle and cover Adi

Watch RSL on Saturday, March 19th at 8:30 p.m. Mountain Standard Time on KMYU or MLS LIVE.