After a long, trying season, the Portland Timbers find themselves back in the MLS Cup Playoffs — looking to launch another memorable, underdog run when they face Real Salt Lake on Saturday night in Sandy (7 p.m., TV on ESPNews).
Off the field, this season was a mess for Real Salt Lake. Their manager Mike Petke shouted homophobic slurs at the referee of a friendly match against Tigres in August, was fired, and is now suing the club for wrongful termination.
The general manager Craig Waibel, named in Petke’s suit as having harsh words for owner Dell Loy Hansen, departed at the end of September. Hansen has for years been notorious in league circles among owners, and there are questions about what kind of talent he’ll be able to attract to fill Waibel’s position.
On the field, though, especially in the months after Petke was fired, RSL has proceeded calmly and efficiently. Their third place finish in the Western Conference was their best in five years, they improved drastically in defense, and finished the year with two straight wins.
Salt Lake is not by any means one of the more star-studded or explosive teams still playing — they scored the fewest goals of any Western Conference playoff side — and have flown mostly under the radar as a result. But they’re 10-2-1 in their last 13 home games, and will be playing with a chip on their shoulder.
The other reason that RSL has flown under the radar is that they don’t have marquee wins. They went just 1-9-2 against the other Western Conference playoff teams, and lost both home and away to the Timbers — 2-1 in Sandy in May, and then 1-0 in Portland at the very end of August.
The August game was particularly telling: RSL controlled the game for long stretches, moved the ball well, were difficult to play through, and simply couldn’t create the chances they needed to get a result.
To have success in the postseason, this team is going to need some heroic individual attacking performances akin to the one that Damir Kreilach turned in against LAFC in last year’s Wild Card round when RSL upset Bob Bradley’s team.
Salt Lake does much of their attacking wide and in the open field, trying to set up Jefferson Savarino and Albert Rusnak, which means that both of the Timbers’ fullbacks will be tested defensively. Jorge Moreira played well the last time these teams met; he’ll need to a similarly strong performance tomorrow night.
The Timbers should get a boost at the other end of the field, where, after missing the regular season finale against San Jose, Diego Valeri is fit and ready to return to the fold. He’ll likely slot in just behind Jeremy Ebobisse up top with Brian Fernandez unavailable as he goes through MLS’s substance abuse and behavioral health program.
Despite their struggles during the stretch run, the Timbers will like their chances heading into this match. They’ve had a good deal of success at Salt Lake in recent years, they’re well-equipped to play on the road, and they’ve been excellent in knockout games under Giovani Savarese.
RSL’s legendary goalkeeper Nick Rimando, retiring at the end of the year, will be playing to extend his career. Ismail Elflath will be the center referee on what is expected to a cool, damp night in Utah.
12 – Clark
4 – Villafaña
25 – Tuiloma
33 – Mabiala
2 – Moreira
21 – Chará
22 – Paredes
27 – Asprilla
10 – Blanco
8 – Valeri (C)
17 – Ebobisse
— With Ebobisse’s move up top, there’s a spot open in the lineup for one of Andy Polo, Dairon Asprilla, or Marvin Loría. Given his performance against San Jose, Asprilla seems like the favorite to start.
— Outside of Valeri’s return, it’d be a surprise to see Savarese make any changes to the team that beat the Earthquakes. That means Bill Tuiloma at center back next to Larrys Mabiala, and Cristhian Paredes in midfield.
Real Salt Lake
18 – Rimando
4 – Toia
14 – Onuoha
15 – Glad
22 – Herrera
25 – E. Luiz
5 – Beckerman (C)
8 – Kreilach
17 – Baird
7 – Savarino
11 – Rusnák
— RSL interim manager Freddy Juarez has rotated between Glad, Onuoha, and Marcelo Silva at center back, and it’s not entirely clear who he’ll opt to start on Saturday.
The Timbers have made one other postseason trip to RSL, for the first leg of the Western Conference Final six years ago, and the result was the most lopsided loss in the club’s MLS playoff history.
This game sets up about as well as a playoff game could for the Timbers right now. They move on with a 2-1 win.