Nov 24, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando (18) grabs the ball out of the air in the first half during the MLS Western Conference Championship soccer game against the Portland Timbers at Jeld-Wen Field. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake vs Portland Timbers - Preview

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The boys are back in town!

Real Salt Lake returns to the friendly confines of Rio Tinto Stadium this Easter Weekend. They’ll be hosting the Portland Timbers, a team they had quite some success against in 2013. The teams are at opposite ends of the rankings currently but these two sides have had some real barn burners in the past, so the seasons results should be tossed out the window. This is the kind of game that could spring either teams season on a path of success with a win. Here is what I see as the keys to the match, my projected starting 11 and finally my prediction for the game.

Where the game will be won for RSL:
The last two games for RSL have been night in day in the midfield. This largely had to do with the quality of the opponent (and their midfield) but it still is a key thing to point out. When the midfield of RSL “clicks”, the team clicks. This game it is especially important to win the midfield battle not just because it is what typically dictates the result for RSL, but because it is where Portland has had its (limited) success this year. Portland’s 2014 offense is what I would describe as opportunistic. They aren’t like the 2013 team that would win the middle of the pitch with the special play of Valeri and Nagbe. No, in 2014 these guys are like rabid dogs just waiting under the kitchen table for you to drop your dinner role. RSL simply can’t make dumb mistakes / passes in the middle of the pitch. Portland will counter and bag a goal – then later eat your dinner role just to rub it in. Keeping the game simple in the middle is vital. The Portland offense is in a bad sort now so it shouldn’t take anything to special to break them down. Thus, the key to winning is to keep things simple and build through the middle. Don’t drop that dinner role!

Where the game with be won for Portland:
Darlignton Nagbe. If there is a guy on this Portland team that could completely change the game with a good night, it is him. The guy is a very talented special player. He’s proven in previous matchups with RSL that if you don’t respect his abilities on the ball, he’ll burn you. What is especially dangerous with Nagbe against RSL is the space he typically utilizes. He doesn’t play an attacking mid type role, sitting just behind the forwards in the middle of the pitch. If he did, Kyle Beckerman would be on top of him and limiting his chances. Instead, he floats off the middle a bit to one side or the other – depending on other personnel for Portland in the match. When he finds that space to the side of Beckerman and just in front of the outside backs he makes things happen. This space is especially troubling for RSL as it leads to a lot of 1v1 or even 2v1 situations on the outside back for RSL. His skill will be favored in a lot of 1v1 situations and his vision and passing ability all but guaranteed up a 2v1 situation. If Portland wants to win, they have to get the ball in this area to Nagbe’s feet early and often. His skill will cause defensive breakdowns for RSL and lead to goals.

Player to watch for RSL: Alvaro Saborio
Alvaro Saborio likes to play against Portland – or so that is what you would think from his stats. Even beyond that, though, Sabo has had a quite last two games by his standards. In Kansas City it was understandable as he simply didn’t get any service. In Philadelphia, though, his struggles seem to have been connected to his missed penalty kick. It was subsequently followed up with a goal from Luke ‘The Trashman’ Mulholland, but that’s besides the point here. Saborio is a very passionate player. This is both a great and bad thing. It leads him to have very special performances when he’s been prompted or offended. The game this season against Toronto is a great example of that. The bad part of this is that he can lose his focus when things aren’t exactly bouncing his way. His penalty kick wasn’t a good one in Philadelphia and was deservedly blocked. That took a toll on this play, though, if you watched his body language through the rest of the game. I’m hoping we see a concentrated and slightly mad Sabo on Saturday night as RSL desperately needs it.

Player to watch for Portland: Kaliff Alhassan
There is a really good blog that you guys should read that did a fantastic review on Portland this week. There is a lot of good information in the piece, but the part that jumped out to me was the Portland offensive stats with Kaliff Alhassan on the pitch. They are bagging a goal every 28 minutes that Alhassan is on the field. Now, it is key to point out that he hasn’t played in all the games and has featured as a sub for some of those goals. Still, there is no arguing that Kaliff is proving a key piece to the 2014 Portland offense. RSL can’t committ the same errors that Seattle did – namely giving the guy space around the 18 to unload. If Portland can win balls in the middle and find Alhassan’s feet around the 18 (look to him to pair up with Nagbe in doing this) then they’ll get goals.

Projected starting XI for RSL:
Rimando, Wingert, Borchers, Schuler, Beltran, Grabavoy, Beckerman, Morales, Gil, Saborio, Garcia
Bench: Attinella, Mansally, Maund, Grossman, Velasquez, Sandoval, Plata

Parting Thought:
If there was such a thing as a friendly rivalry, it’s the one between Portland and RSL. We don’t hate each other like you would in a typical rivalry. What is there is a lot of respect for how the other team plays, their teams and management approach to the game, and the way the fans support their sides. I feel a lot of respect for what Portland does and what they are aspiring to do. They play good soccer and it is what makes me the most excited about this game. When two teams approach a game wanting to play possession attacking soccer you get great results. Our history with these guys in 2013 alone is proof of this. I’m really happy to hear this game is near a sell-out currently and all signs point to it being one. This is the soccer we want to see. I think the good guys in red will pull off a win but it won’t be easy. 2-1 RSL with a late goal to snag the full 3 for the home side.

FORZA RSL!

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Tags: Alvaro Saborio Darlington Nagbe Kaliff Alhassan Kyle Beckerman Major League Soccer MLS Nick Rimando Real Salt Lake RSL

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