With three games to go in the MLS regular season, the Portland Timbers are locked in a fight to finish fourth in the Western Conference and win the right to host a Wild Card game during the last week of October.
One of the team's battling them for that fourth spot, and for playoff positioning at large, is Real Salt Lake — who the Timbers will meet for back-to-back games, the first of which takes place Saturday in Sandy (6:30 p.m., TV on ROOT Sports).
It's largely been a tale of two seasons for Mike Petke's Real Salt Lake: they've been terrific at home, where they've won 34 of their 46 points, and abysmal on the road.
Why such a stark split? RSL's youth is one explanation. Only four of the field players who started the club's last playoff appearance two years ago in LA remain, with the likes of Jefferson Savarino, Albert Rusnak, and rookie Corey Baird leading a high-tempo, highly dangerous attack.
RSL hasn't been quite so good defensively, though, with former Timbers first round pick Nick Besler partnering young U.S. national team prospect Justin Glad at center back, and it's an open question whether the team is tough enough in enough positions to compete at the very end of the season.
Two players Salt Lake can count upon are familiar: Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman, 39 and 36 respectively, remain vital. Rimando has played in 30 games this year and mostly been outstanding, Beckerman has played 29 times and, while a step slower than he was several years ago, been effective as well.
RSL has primarily been a 4-2-3-1 team this season, though Petke shifted to a a 4-4-2 of sorts in Atlanta two weeks ago and then a 4-3-3 without Rusnak's services in last weekend's draw at Sporting Kansas City.
Petke will have Rusnak available on Saturday, and whichever formation he decides to play, Salt Lake will want to get their wingers into space and isolated against the Timbers' fullbacks. Their ability to do that will largely be dictated their ability to contain the game in transition, starting in central midfield.
On the other side, the Timbers are largely without a tactical identity. Giovani Savarese set them up in a 4-4-2 diamond last weekend against Dallas with Jeremy Ebobisse and Samuel Armenteros paired together up top, and was compensated with one of the team's least cohesive attacking performances of the season in return.
The diamond isn't the answer. What is? It's still anyone's guess. The Timbers have struggled to defend wide in the 4-3-2-1, most notably at Minnesota two weekends ago, which makes it a poor fit for use in this game. Does that mean a two-man central midfield? We'll see.
12 - Clark
4 - Villafaña
18 - Cascante
33 - Mabiala
16 - Valentin
20 - Guzman
21 - Chara
11 - Polo
10 - Blanco
8 - Valeri (C)
99 - Armenteros
— Liam Ridgewell is suspended after being sent off late last weekend, which likely means that Cascante will return to the lineup. The Timbers are 0-6-1 in his last seven starts.
— Lawrence Olum had one of his worst outings of the season against Dallas, which might give David Guzman another chance in this game.
— Alvas Powell and Jeff Attinella are both injury question marks, of the two, Attinella is more likely to play.
— Neither Armenteros nor Ebobisse has impressed over the last month, and Armenteros' future at the club would seem, at this point, to be up in the air.
Salt Lake beat the Timbers twice last year, including at the Rio Tinto in September on the strength of this sensational game-winning goal from Savarino.
RSL has been sensational at home this year, and the Timbers' defense has been abysmal on the road since July. Salt Lake wins 3-1.