If the Portland Timbers can't finally beat Real Salt Lake in Sandy, Utah, they should just stop trying.
Real Salt Lake is the Timbers' bete noir, the team they can never seem to overcome. Portland (3 wins, 4 losses, 7 draws, 16 points) won the first meeting between the two, at home in 2011, but since then it has not won a match against Real, including in last season's Western Conference finals.
Now, though, the World Cup has RSL reeling. Three of the team's best four players left in mid-May to join their nations' squads in Brazil. No other team in MLS has been as badly affected. RSL won the first game of its run without midfielder Kyle Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando, now playing for the U.S. national team, and forward Alvaro Saborio, who plays for Costa Rica.
Since the international call ups, RSL (6-1-7, 25 points) is winless. Last weekend, the Seattle Sounders, also missing players because of the World Cup, trounced RSL 4-0 in a game for the top spot in the Western Conference. Then Salt Lake went to Ohio on Thursday to face the Columbus Crew and could only manage a 1-1 draw. That midweek trip will mean RSL is likely to be jetlagged for the fixture against Portland, in addition to being depleted.
RSL usually triumphs against the Timbers because its tactics pose questions for which the Timbers' formation and personnel have no easy solutions. Some of those problems, though, are less acute without key players. Saborio, for instance, has scored more goals against the Timbers than any other player, with seven in eight games. (He's also recently injured a metatarsal.) Saborio's deputies â Devon Sandoval, Robbie Findley, Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia â have all proven capable of hurting the Timbers in the past. It's the movement RSL coach Jeff Cassar, like his predecessor Jason Kreis, demands of his strikers, not any individual skill of Saborio's, that hurts the Timbers.
Portland fans won't be missing Rimando, either. The US' third-string keeper at the World Cup got a lot of the credit for Salt Lake's win over Portland back in April because of a couple of impressive saves. His replacement, Jeff Attinella, is a significant step down in quality, struggling particularly with catching high balls. It might be to Portland's benefit to play new striker Fanendo Adi, whose height makes him a threat in those situations.
The player RSL will miss most, though, is Beckerman. The dreadlocked midfielder will be a backup for the United States in Brazil, but he is the heart of Real Salt Lake. Few players in MLS read the game as well as Beckerman, who is a master of intercepting passes before moves can get dangerous. He also keeps his team going with precise passing out of the back.
Neither of his replacements for RSL can replicate what he does. Cole Grossman defends well, but he misplaces too many passes to be the conduit for attacks Beckerman is. John Stertzer, the other alternative, is a more accurate passer, but not defensively as assured.
With or without Beckerman, though, the Timbers will still have to face up against midfielder Javier Morales. The clever runs from RSL's strikers make space for Morales to run rampant, and Portland never does a good job of marking him in midfield.
For Portland, Diego Chara, already overworked, will have to be working overtime to stop Morales. Portland recently dealt veteran defender Futty Danso away to Montreal. Danso had never been the most assured player against RSL to begin with, but his immediate replacement, Rauwshan McKenzie, was caught out of position for a couple of the Vancouver Whitecaps' goals last Sunday.
Even with the World Cup doing Portland several favors ahead of Sunday's game, it will still come down to whether McKenzie and Pa Modou Kah can keep up with RSL's strikers, and whether Morales is in an imperious mood. The Timbers might still come away from their best ever chance of beating RSL empty handed.