Even in the best of times, there is no harder match for the Portland Timbers
than Real Salt Lake
With the Timbers six games into the season and still winless, the game in at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday feels like little more than another opportunity for disappointment.
Portland (0-2-4, 4 points) has only ever beaten RSL once, with an all-time record of 1-7-3 against the team. RSL (2-0-4, 10 points) also ended the Timbers' season last year with a 5-2 aggregate victory in the playoffs. Striker Alvaro Saborio
alone has seven goals in as many games against the Timbers, while the team's play maker, Javier Morales
, has recorded five assists and scored four in Timbers-RSL clashes.
It's easy to see why RSL is Portland's bete noir—the team simply does everything the Timbers do, but better.
Both sides' style is defined by keeping possession of the ball and stretching the opposition's defense with quick passing combinations and clever movement. Then the teams' creative lynchpins, both Argentine midfielders, play a killer ball to create a chance.
The success of that kind of approach can be measured by looking at the percentage of the game a team spends in control of the ball. Last year, Portland was third in the league for percentage of possession, while RSL was first.
RSL has an advantage in part because its system is better suited to keeping possession. Real plays a diamond formation, meaning it has four midfielders, all of whom play centrally: captain Kyle Beckerman
sits in front of the defense, Morales plays right behind the attackers and two others, usually Luis Gil
and Ned Grabavoy
, shuffle in between.
The more central players, the more options the man on the ball will have for a pass. Beckerman sets the rhythm by receiving the ball out of defense and playing the first simple, accurate pass into attack. Morales waits at the top of the field for the opportunity to play the killer ball. The other two, both skilled on the ball themselves, help keep the ball moving and provide energy to move the attack forward.
Unlike many modern teams, RSL also plays two strikers up front.
Portland, on the other hand, plays with fewer men in the center of the field. That gives the Timbers a wider area in which to attack, but also increases the distance between the midfielders, thereby creating fewer safe places to pass the ball.
The key problem this sets up is in the defense. If a team based on possession can't successfully dominate the ball, its defenders face a lot of pressure. A team that is successful at dominating possession can afford to have wide defenders who push into attack like auxiliary attackers. Also, because a team that dominates possession isn't going to face as many attacks, it can afford to use defenders who add more going forward, even if they are more of a liability at the back.
Last year, Portland was a perfect example of a team that managed to protect its defense by protecting the ball.
Until the playoffs against RSL, that is. RSL's two-striker formation matches up well against Portland's pair of central defenders, Pa-Modou Kah
and Futty Danso
. RSL strikers Devon Sandoval
and Robbie Findley
pulled Kah and Danso out of position with sly runs toward the corners.
That allows talented players such as Morales and Beckerman a lot of space in which to pass the ball.
Added to that is the fact that Portland doesn't have a specialist defensive midfielder. Diego Chara
is talented, but he is really just a playmaker doing a defender's job. Without someone protecting defenders, the Timbers leave themselves open to being outnumbered when they defend.
Saturday will be a difficult game for Portland, but maybe the Timbers can finally turn their season around.
Playing against a diamond midfield, you can take control of the game either by overloading the center with players to wrest possession from the opponent, or by widening out your formation to exploit gaps behind the undefended left-and-right backs, and not worrying about possession numbers.
If Portland wants to do the latter, the best bet is to persist with Ghanaian winger Kalif Alhassan
, who widens the play and is quick and intelligent on the dribble. If the Timbers want to beat RSL at its own game, it might be better to play someone like forward Gaston Fernandez
, who will narrow the play and help create space.
Either way, the Timbers go into the RSL game expecting nothing. Losing won't disillusion anyone at this point. Winning against a team that has caused Timbers fans so much grief for so long, though, might suddenly catapult Portland's whole season back from the brink.