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RSL faces Portland with defense, creativity in focus

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MLS: CONCACAF Champions League-Santa Tecla FC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake continue a short Pacific Northwest series on Saturday when they face Portland Timbers at Providence Park.

Saturday's match against the reigning MLS Cup champions comes off the back of a 2-1 win over the Timbers' biggest rivals, Seattle Sounders — a win that put the team in a good position to carry some momentum forward.

But concerns about defense and attack — owing in part to early season injuries to Javier Morales and Jamison Olave — are bigger talking points than the last match or last season.

Defense is key, but who starts?

Despite conceding too many opportunities and goals in 2016, Real Salt Lake's defense looks considerably improved over 2015. I wrote earlier this week that Jamison Olave has been playing better than some seem to think, and that was just in time for him to potentially miss this match.

If needed, he'd likely be replaced by Justen Glad, and it could be an opportunity for the youngster to show what he brings to the position. We all know his age and that he's good at reading the game, but it would be an opportunity to show that he's maturing and gaining some consistency in his play.

That would leave Chris Wingert and Danilo Acosta as potential center back substitutes in the event of an issue, with Boyd Okwuonu (concussion) and Phanuel Kavita (MCL) both out of contention.

Morales is back

All indications point to Javier Morales being restored to the lineup after a quick recovery from a rib and quad injury. We don't suspect those two are related, although, hey, stranger things have happened.

On Wednesday, RSL coach Jeff Cassar said that Morales has an uncanny ability to just step back into training.

"He participated fully in training, which was great," Cassar said in an interview on ESPN 700. "He looked good, lively, sharp — which is always surprising when someone sits out for a few days. But he has amazing ability to just step in and not really miss a beat."

With the return of Morales, RSL will be looking for a return to their creative strengths. We'll round this section out with another Cassar quote, this time recognizing RSL's struggles last weekend.

At the end of the day, we didn't win any beauty points during that game. We fought hard and limited their chances; they didn't have a lot of chances. We had a couple opportunities early on that could have really changed the game and opened it up, but it was a hard-fought game. — Jeff Cassar, ESPN 700

Creating chances

The biggest question for RSL against Portland will again be in chance creation, and as above, the return of Javier Morales is a perfect opportunity to see just that. But that on its own doesn't solve anything, and he'll have to continue to build his relationships with Burrito Martinez and Joao Plata if RSL wants to solve anything.

If we look back to previous years, we can see evidence of the classic "Hack-a-Javi" method employed by other teams. This year, it's been closer to a "Hack-a-Burrito," which sounds none-too-savory. That has an incredible effect of making each of the three attacking creators more viable and productive.

See, I'd posit that Real Salt Lake isn't actually playing a 4-3-3 in its rawest interpretation. Martinez and Plata aren't, to my mind, playing as wide players — not purely, at least. Let's take a look at a few charts from RSL's match against Orlando before we make our minds up about this. Dots mark the positions of each touch a player has been recorded as taking.

Joao Plata

Burrito Martinez

Javier Morales

What you see are three players who are involved horizontally across the pitch. You do see some variety — that's expected — but you don't see the look of a traditional winger in Plata or Martinez. Instead, I'd posit that you're seeing a lineup with three attacking midfielders of different stripes.

Morales is the now-classic playmaker who primarily operates through the middle these days, and you won't typically find him beyond than the left or right channel. As a result, he's the most obviously involved. Although this is only one match we're looking at, it's a pattern you can find week-in, week-out.

Burrito Martinez is basically a final-third player who will come back defensively on either side, depending on where he's ended up when the ball is lost. His ability to get back and defend is reflected here, but it's his attacking contributions that draw the most attention because that's what differentiates him from any other wide player.

Joao Plata takes almost a hybrid role here — he's typically getting his touches behind where Martinez does, but not by much. In that way, he's basically mirroring Martinez, to good effect. He's getting quite a few touches in the center of the pitch, though, and a bit higher up than you'd suspect. It almost seems like he's a hybrid wide attacker (an inside forward, maybe?) and second striker, plying his trade behind and in support of Yura Movsisyan.

Parting thoughts

"At the end of the day, at the beginning of the year, it's really about collecting points, putting them in your back pocket, and having them at the end of the year."

— Jeff Cassar on ESPN 700