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RSL vs. Portland Timbers tactical preview: Sunny with chance of fireworks in weekend forecast

Will RSL fight to a tricky road victory, making a playoff run difficult for the Timbers?

MLS: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The second intra-conference match-up this for Real Salt Lake will take place at Providence Park. After cruising to the post-season in 2015, the defending champions, Portland Timbers, are limping their way towards a playoff berth in 2016.

Having won only two matches in the last five, Portland will look to solidify their place above the red-line. The Timbers are very much in the scrum for a post-season berth with both the San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders nipping at their heels – with games-in-hand, might I mention. Portland is nowhere near safe and this will make them a dangerous opponent to face.

Putting on a show is different than grinding out a result

Like the Claret-and-Cobalt, the Timbers changed from a dominantly possession based side to relying more on quick counter-attacks. Unlike RSL, however, the Timbers have not digressed in the slightest – becoming one of the most dangerous counter-attacking side in the league. Portland, utilizing both speed and creativity, appear to be able to make something out of almost nothing. Just check out this goal by Fanendo Adi, which doubled Portland’s lead over their hated Cascadia rivals:

As a result, Portland is a side that creates a bunch of chances, but this does not necessarily translate to goals. Thus far, Portland has created 270 chances in 2016. Of those only 21 have been assists. That means that of the chances Portland creates, only eight percent of them have been capitalized on and turned into assists – compared to Real’s 11 percent. In other words, it takes the Portland Timbers seven chances, on average, to score a goal, while it only takes Real six.

Despite having a potent attack, Portland has found itself struggling to produce – something that could benefit an RSL side that has only managed four clean sheets in 28 matches this year (7 clean sheets were recorded at this time last year).

Without a home and always on the move

Another of the Timbers’ — well more Caleb Porter’s, defining traits is the Darlington Nagbe enigma. Now in his sixth year with the club, Nagbe’s potential has yet to be wholly tapped. This boils down to Nagbe not being given a position all his own. Instead of playing a single role match-in and match-out, Nagbe has been bounced around from position to position, never really finding a home.

It appeared that Nagbe finally found his calling in the late season sprint to the playoffs last year, but it was not to be. Having found great success in the center of the pitch, Nagbe was once again moved out-wide when his squad began to slump. Unable to provide that killer pass on the flanks, he has taken up utilizing his speed rather than his creative prowess. It seems that Nagbe has been so stunted this year his only goal has come off a set-piece:

Even as Nagbe has slumped with his club, he can still be a danger and something RSL will have to deal with in Portland. Playing on either the left or the right flanks, RSL’s fullbacks will have to remain a step ahead of the newly minted U.S. Men’s National Team player.

Keys to the Match

The tactics have changed for the Timbers and so too their style of play.

In 2016, Portland is likely to:

1. Create a large number of scoring chances and take a large amount of shots,

2. Attack through the center of the pitch, rather than the wings,

3. Concede possession and hit opposition on the counter-attack with long, penetrating though balls,

4. And concede fouls in dangerous areas.

With these tendencies, there are several keys to the match that RSL can exploit:

1. Be ok with conceding shots from poor areas, but prevent those from good areas. With Nick Rimando, the best back-stop in the league, in-between the posts, this should not be too hard in theory. However, Rimando has had a less than fantastic year when it comes to giving up rebounds. Since the Timbers are likely to out-shoot RSL, the Claret-and-Cobalt’s back-line will have to direct where they are going to concede these shots from and gobble up the rebounds from the dangerous areas.

2. Cut passing lanes through the center of the pitch. Portland heavily favors playing through the center of the pitch whether it is the wingers folding in or Diego Valeri dashing forward. Therefore, the midfield duo of Beckerman and partner - possibilities include Sunny, Mulholland, or Stertzer - will have to be on their game to break up any dangerous Timber’s plays. While this tandem usually screens the RSL back-line, they will have to be on their game to prevent some of the league’s best attackers from taking advantage of any green space in-front of goal.

3. The back-line has to be in sync. Facing yet another counter-attacking team, RSL’s back four will have to be on their toes to prevent the light-of-foot Timbers from sneaking behind them. Expect Rimando to need to bark his orders; as well, everyone will have to cover everyone for a night undoubtedly filled with sprints.

4. Capitalize on set-pieces taken in dangerous areas. The legs of RSL will be heavy having played a mid-week match. Because of that, expect the Claret-and-Cobalt conserve energy and capitalize on plays rather than run their opponent into the ground. As the Timbers are more than likely to concede several fouls in dangerous spots, the ensuing free-kicks will give Real something to capitalize on. Javier Morales and Joao Plata will be called upon and their delivery or lack thereof could decide this tight affair.


Both the Claret-and-Cobalt and Portland Timbers are in a Battle Royale for post-season position and they will hope to make this one of those desired six point swings. The last two matches between these sides have ended in a draw but look for one of these sides to draw the final blood and clinch this series for the year - oh, and did I forget to mention there is already some bad blood between these two sides? Whatever happens, don’t take your eyes of the screen because this match will surely provide some fireworks.

Watch RSL take on the Portland Timbers on Saturday September 10th at 8:30 pm MST on KMYU or listen to Bill Riley on ESPN 700.