SANDY — Real Salt Lake has endured a difficult stretch of road games to start the 2019 season, but it’s nothing compared to what the Portland Timbers have gone through.
Portland’s stadium is undergoing a $75 million expansion, which means it’s playing its first 12 games on the road this season. That includes Game 9 at Real Salt Lake this Saturday (7 p.m., KMYU).
The Timbers didn’t handle the stretch well early, going 0-5-1, but they’ve won back-to-back games against Columbus and Toronto and are suddenly looking like their old selves heading into the showdown at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Even if Portland was still struggling, RSL coach Mike Petke said it would still have his undivided attention.
“We have them as the best defensive team, structurally, organized that we’ve faced so far, and extremely explosive on the counter attack with pace and quality; it’s going to be a very tough game for us,” said Petke.
Wait, the team that’s given up 19 goals — tied for second to last in MLS — is a top defensive team?
Forget about the goals, Petke said, it’s the way Portland’s midfield four plays that makes it such a difficult team to play against.
“It’s very hard to penetrate through their midfield four,” said Petke. “If we don’t break lines through this midfield four, if we’re resigned to playing sideways they’re going to sideline trap us and they’re very good at that and very good at going forward.”
The quality of RSL’s passes bypassing the midfield, and even the quality of the runs in behind Portland’s defense will be key to building some momentum heading into a favorable stretch of games.
After playing six of its first nine games on the road, RSL will be at Rio Tinto Stadium for three of its next four. A result against a Portland team that’s starting to figure things out, and could dominate the second half of the season with so many home games, would be a great start to the home-heavy stretch of games.
“I think to be able to play in a game and have the advantage of having a crowd there and have people behind you and stuff and be in your home environment — very comfortable in those surroundings — it’s understandable why, when you do go on those stretches, you have to do well,” said RSL defender Nedum Onuoha.Comment on this story
He reiterated Portland’s record this year means nothing ahead of the match.
“Every game you treat it the same whether you’re playing a team that’s not lost all season to a team that’s lost every game; otherwise you can start to become complacent. When you play this game and you do start to become complacent you can lose to anybody,” said Onuoha.
After Saturday RSL travels to last-place Colorado next week before returning home for back-to-back games against Eastern Conference teams Toronto and Atlanta.