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Tactical Preview: RSL vs Portland Timbers

RSL take on the struggling Timbers at the RioT in a crucial Western Conference playoff matchup.

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

Tomorrow night, Real Salt Lake will step out onto the pitch at Rio Tinto Stadium with a lot on the line.

With just three games left in the regular season and currently sitting in the sixth and final playoff spot, a win against fourth place Portland Timbers would be a huge boost to their playoff chances, and would actually see them pass Portland on points. So what will we see from each team in this crucial playoff race matchup? Let’s take a look!

Real Salt Lake

Last week RSL went into Kansas City and played a good game against SKC. As we talked about last week, we saw SKC play a high press and then RSL find ways to break the press and get out on the counterattack. RSL had their chances to win the game (Corey Baird off the crossbar!) and also had some shaky moments (Big save Rimando!), so a draw against a quality opponent on the road late in the year is a point I will gratefully take and walk away with.

This week, RSL are likely to face the exact opposite kind of opponent than what they faced last week. While SKC wanted to possess the ball and press high to win it back, I expect that we will see Portland sit deep and try to break on the counter. RSL’s mission, then, will be to find a way to break down a parked bus defense, something that they have struggled with this year. The front attacking four of Savarino, Rusnak, Plata and Kreilach are going to have to be on their game and play good combining soccer to open up the Timbers defense.

Thus far this season, RSL have done a good job of possessing the ball, especially at home. the Claret and Cobalt have averaged 55.8% possession in home games this season. They will definitely need to continue that trend against the Timbers this weekend.

Another thing that RSL is going to have to really focus on is eliminating soft turnovers in the central midfield. This is something that RSL struggled with a little bit last week, and its going to be possibly even more important this week for them to not have those turnovers.

One thing to look out for as well: We saw Nedum Onouha get his first RSL minutes this past weekend. Do we see him get a start this week? I think it’s a definite possibility! Other than that, I expect to see the same lineup that we have been seeing in recent weeks, with Rusnak returning to his starting role in the attacking midfield and Kreilach returning to the point of the attack.

Portland Timbers

Portland come into this game just two points ahead of RSL with 48 points on the season courtesy of a 13-9-9 overall record. Thus far this season, the Timbers have scored 46 goals while allowing 45. Last week, Portland played to a 0-0 draw with Western Conference leaders FC Dallas.

Due to MLS’ ever interesting scheduling, this meeting will actually be the first time these two teams have seen each other in 2018. Having them play each other twice in close succession right at the end of the season with playoff positions on the line certainly lends to the excitement of the end of the season.

Recently, the Timbers have been struggling on the road, going 0-4-2 in their last six road games. They are going to be desparate to break that trend and get some points against another Western Conference playoff team.

One note of concern for the Timbers will be the absence of stalwart centerback Liam Ridgewell, who will be serving a suspension in this game after earning a stoppage time red card against FC Dallas last week. How will a temporary centerback pairing affect Portland’s central defense? Will RSL be able to pull the defense apart a little more easily due to this temporary pairing?

In this game, I believe that the Timbers will come out in a 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” formation like they have much of the season. This gives them a definite defensive shape, and then counts on the fullbacks getting forward to help give their attack width. It will be important for RSL to study and be prepared for the nuances of this formation and how the ball moves between the players, especially in the central midfield. Because of this formation, the Timbers typically do not have as much of the ball. Thus far this season, they have averaged just 47.1% possession away from home. The Timbers hope for this game will be to keep a clean sheet defensively, parking the bus and then looking to punish RSL on the counter. Balance and positioning are going to be key for RSL’s defense to put a damper on this game plan. If RSL can stay balanced and control the movement of the ball well, they should have a good chance to get a positive result in this game.

Expected Lineup

GK: Rimando

DF: Lennon, Glad, Onouha, Herrera

MF: Beckerman, Sunny

MF: Savarino, Rusnak, Plata

ST: Kreilach

RSL’s keys to the match

  1. Stay balanced to prevent the dangerous counterattack. RSL is going to have a lot of the ball, so they are going to be tempted to push more players forward to get into the attack. They have to remember to stay balanced and keep their defensive responsibilities first.
  2. Find a way to break down the “parked bus”. As mentioned, RSL is going to have a lot of the ball. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ending possession numbers are 60%-40% in RSL’s favor. They are going to have to be patient with the ball and pull apart the Timbers defense one pass at a time. If they can do that, they should get some good scoring opportunities to have the chance to put this game away.