What had been a fairly nondescript year for Real Salt Lake took a dramatic and unseemly turn on July 24, when third-year manager Mike Petke screamed a homophobic slur at the referee of his team's Leagues Cup game against Tigres, was sent off, suspended for three games without pay, and then, finally, fired.
Given the outrageous nature of Petke's conduct — he reportedly shouted the slur at the referee on the field repeatedly, attacked him with it again in the tunnel after the match, and then went so far as to write the word on a piece of paper and deliver to the referee's locker room — the club had little choice but to terminate him.
You might think that such a loss would be difficult to recover from. But in the six games since Petke's assistant Freddy Juarez stepped into the hot seat, RSL haven't missed a beat. They've won four times, they're only loss coming against LAFC, and have moved all the way up to second in the Western Conference.
That might not mean much in the short-term — only six points currently separate second from eighth in the West right now — but RSL fans have to be delighted with how their team has responded to the coaching change.
One other piece of information to note: Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who, in his prime, was one of the most dominant opposing players in the history of Providence Park, is retiring at the end of the season. Barring a playoff meeting, this will be his final match in Portland.
Juarez doesn't appear to be married to one particular system, at times going with a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, at times a more defensive 4-4-1-1, but there are a few constants — Everton Luiz and Kyle Beckerman in central midfield; some combination of Damir Kreilach, Albert Rusnak, and Jefferson Savarino going forward.
RSL isn't as nearly as much a possession team as Atlanta or Seattle is, and they'll likely take a defensive approach on Saturday. Justen Glad, not always a favorite of Petke's, will need to have a big game in central defense.
The Timbers, meanwhile, so prolific early in the summer, are looking for a way to get their offense going. They've only scored multiple goals in one of their last five games, and have been shutout twice. Brian Fernandez, who had seven goals in his first seven MLS starts, has just two in his last five.
Giovani Savarese this week said Fernandez is unlikely to move to the wing, where he had great success during his time in Liga MX, but regardless, it's clear that Jeremy Ebobisse needs to be in the starting lineup.
Wherever he lines up, getting Ebobisse in the box over the course of entire games is going to be essential for the Timbers as long as opposing teams at Providence Park continue to sit in and force them to cross the ball. Not only is Ebobisse good in the air, but he takes attention away from Fernandez as well.
Of course, the Timbers' bigger concern may be at the other end of the field. Larrys Mabiala hasn't played since leaving the Chicago game injured, while Julio Cascante suffered what appeared to be a significant last Friday against Seattle.
Neither is available this weekend, which means that the Timbers are down to Bill Tuiloma and Claude Dielna at center back. Dielna in particular has been terrible this year, while the Timbers' record without Mabiala is a dismal 1-4-2.
Make no mistake: the Timbers need this game. It's not essential to their playoff chances, but there is some serious frustration simmering after the back-to-back home defeats. This is the moment to head it off.
Looking for an update on the Iron Front situation? It seems safe to say that the Timbers Army and traveling Seattle supporters made their mark with their silent protest last week — it was covered in numerous national media outlets — and the Army seemed to suggest on Thursday that a resolution may be forthcoming.
12 - Clark
4 - Villafaña
5 - Dielna
25 - Tuiloma
2 - Moreira
21 - Chara
22 - Paredes
10 - Blanco
8 - Valeri (C)
17 - Ebobisse
7 - Fernandez
— Mo Jadama would be the next in line after Tuiloma and Dielna, but he's been struggling with an injury as well. Zarek Valentin may have to step into that role if needed tomorrow.
— Marvin Loría was pulled after just 45 minutes against Seattle, and while the Costa Rican has had an enormously promising first season in the league, the spot on the wing opposite Sebastian Blanco should go to Ebobisse.
— It's the same story in central midfield: Renzo Zambrano has had a terrific first season, but it should be Cristhian Paredes in the big games from here on in.
The Timbers annhilated RSL in back-to-back games last October, with the high point coming when Diego Chara blazed past Kyle Beckerman to score this goal in the meeting at Providence Park.
The Timbers should get a few goals in this one — but the central defensive partnership is cause for serious concern. 2-2 draw.