RSL will meet Portland for the fifth time this season, and the third time at home. In each of those matches, RSL has not lost to the Timbers. In fact, going back a little further, RSL hasn’t lost in their last 5 MLS matchups against the Timbers, 6 if you include this year’s US Open Cup match at Rio Tinto. And yet, of all the teams in this playoff run, the Timbers make me the most nervous.
RSL and the Timbers play similar, possession-style play. The formations are different, the mentality is different, but it looks the same, and this has led to some really close matches this year. Beyond that, though, the Timbers feel like they are unstoppable, like they took the top seed in the Western Conference and kept running, and haven’t looked back. They made short work of what could have been the greatest team in the Western Conference if big money stars meant anything at all to team performance and chemistry. And they did it with ease.
Now, arguably battling the 3rd place Galaxy, and winning, was an easier feat than a morale-depleted Sounders team that was just grasping onto their postseason hopes by the skin of their teeth. But still, when you have players on the field like Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Mauro Rosales, you expect a better outcome than what the Sounders ended the season with.
The big weak point this season for RSL has been on set pieces, and defense in general. But those worries seem to be shored up now that Chris Schuler is back and playing the best I have ever seen him. There are injury concerns, but Sebastian Velasquez proved against the Galaxy that he could easily fill in for the injured Grabavoy and add an exciting and creative dynamic that wouldn’t have been on the pitch otherwise. Sabo is likely to be out tonight, but Findley had one of his best games of the season against the Galaxy as well, showing how dangerous and speedy he can really be, and Devon Sandoval (whom I expect to be filling in for Sabo in the starting 11) has had some near misses in the games that he’s played. It’s only a matter of time before he gets his head on one of those and it hits the back of the net.
The real concern for RSL is whether Javier Morales gets the start, because we’ve seen this season that the games in which he does not play at all, the midfield lacks the shine that it gains with him on the pitch. RSL may not always play their best game with Javi in, but they definitely don’t play their best games without him (unless they’re playing Vancouver, apparently).
The Timbers on the other hand have no real injuries of note. Sure, Valeri’s adductor/groin injury isn’t 100% better, and Urruti is still recovering from his hamstring sprain, but both players have seen the pitch in the postseason and are likely to play tonight given that the Timbers need a win — I don’t think they are anxious to go back to Portland on the 23rd with a loss or a draw when their last two matches in Jeld-Wen against RSL have ended tied. In my opinion, any time RSL can take the game into extra time, it works in their favor, they can continue to control the game and wear the other team down and statistically speaking, Nick Rimando is one of the best keepers against penalties in the MLS — though it gives me an ulcer thinking about a game going all the way to penalties, despite that being how Real won the MLS cup in 2009.
Jason Kreis talks about the team “wanting to win” more getting the result. It certainly seems that way. But if that were the case, tonight, I have a feeling that team might be the Timbers. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope so. The Timbers haven’t made it this far in, what, ever? Whereas RSL has gotten close and been denied too many times — including this season. I hope RSL wants this match more, because it will be much easier for RSL to go to Portland with an advantage and grind out another draw in Jeld-Wen than to try to recreate what they did at home against the Galaxy in the Rose City.
All I know is that I expect to not have a voice tomorrow morning.