RSL vs Portland Playoff Preview

The word "believe" has been synonymous with the RSL franchise for as long as the team has been playing. It's a mantra that has been instilled on club merchandise, stadium walls, and anthems. This year, the "believe" mindset is stronger than ever, as RSL has made one of the most improbable runs in MLS history to the Western Conference Final, where they are set to take on the Portland Timbers.

RSL celebrates their game-winning goal in stoppage time against SKC in the Western Conference semifinal. Photo from Real Salt Lake.

For the first time all season, RSL has won three consecutive games. Two of those wins have come via stoppage time winners, with another in a penalty shootout. Not only has RSL been winning in dramatic ways, each of their wins have been different. Absences and tactical choices have resulted in three different styles of play, allowing for a decent amount of speculation ahead of Saturday's match. Before one of the biggest matches in club history, let's look at the matchup for the Western Conference Final.


Player Availability


RSL is on the receiving end of great news on the availability front, as captain Albert Rusnak will be playing for the first time in the postseason after missing the first two matches because of his COVID-19 diagnosis. While Rusnak will still need to be evaluated to determine how many minutes he can play, he is optimistic about his chances to go a full match. His first day back at training was Wednesday.


After picking up yellow cards against both Seattle and SKC, midfielder Everton Luiz is suspended for Saturday's game. Nick Besler is the likely option to take Luiz's place, unless coach Pablo Mastroeni tries a different formation.


For Portland, winger Dairon Asprilla's red card against Colorado means he is also suspended. Midfielder Sebastian Blanco picked up a hamstring injury during the semifinal and has been ruled out versus RSL. Without Asprilla and Blanco, the Timbers attack will be much less lethal.


Matchup


RSL has not fared well against the Timbers this season, losing all three of their games against each other. Some of those matches were RSL's worst of the season, including a 6-1 thrashing in Portland. Luckily for RSL, they play a much different style of play now than they did in the teams' previous matchups. Against Portland this year, RSL has played a 4-2-3-1 (with Damir Kreilach at the 10), and a 3-5-2 twice. On Saturday, I expect Mastroeni to stick to the 4-4-2 he's used for this winning streak, with a slim chance that he instead plays a 4-2-3-1 with Rusnak at the 10.


Tactics


Against Seattle and SKC, RSL played a flat 4-4-2, with most of the offense running through the wing players, with support from overlapping fullbacks. Despite the same formation in both games, the style of play in each match could not have been more different. In Seattle, RSL stayed strong defensively and saw the game out to penalties, infamously recording zero shots along the way. In Kansas City, the Claret and Cobalt were clearly the better team, generating several meaningful chances by controlling the game through possession.


No team, no matter how much they want to bunker, comes out with a game plan of taking zero shots. Because of that and the way Mastroeni has described the matches, it is clear he hopes his side plays closer to how they did against SKC than the Sounders. The return of Rusnak, RSL's best creative player, will certainly bolster their ability to generate chances going forward.


The Timbers like to sit back and allow their opponents possession, punishing any mistakes with lethal counter-attacks. RSL's four-man backline will be much more equipped to handle transition (as we saw in Kansas City) than the 3-5-2 that was gashed by Portland for nine goals in two matches. Regardless, RSL will need to dominate in the midfield to prevent any disastrous turnovers to a Timbers attack who has proven their ability to punish opponents.


RSL has their work cut out for them if they want their first win against Portland this season, but the club's internal (and external) embracing of the "believe" mantra means they are more than capable of turning in a masterclass performance on Saturday en route to MLS Cup.