Two sides separated by just one point in the MLS Western Conference standings will hope to maintain their playoff positions as the Portland Timbers host Real Salt Lake on Saturday from Providence Park.
Portland have come to life, currently in fifth, unbeaten in their last five games, while Claret and Cobalt have squeaked out a pair of one-goal victories as they sit in sixth, but only three points clear of eighth-place Los Angeles FC.
Since the end of August, we have seen a very different Portland Timbers team, who are starting to play to their potential like we all expected they would at the start of the year.
The effort, focus and execution that we only saw rare glimpses of in the first half of this season has shown up in spades over their past five matches as Giovanni Savarese is finally beginning to see his players show some consistency with each game.
That balance has brought a belief back to this squad, who were struggling to find chemistry and confidence with all of their injuries, while also in danger of missing the postseason.
All of a sudden, hosting a playoff game is very much a possibility as they sit only a point behind the Los Angeles Galaxy for fourth, but they are by no means out of the woods when it comes to missing the playoffs either, currently only four points above the postseason line, so they cannot afford to start losing now.
After an uncharacteristically poor display at the back last Wednesday against the Colorado Rapids, they were a lot sharper defensively against the Black-and-Gold, conceding only three shots on target and earning a big three points.
If they can end this month with a couple more victories, it should put them in a very comfortable position to make the postseason as their next two games are against teams slightly below them in the table (Real Salt Lake and LAFC).
You have to give Real Salt Lake a lot of credit for their resiliency this year, as they always seem to be able to earn three points when they need it the most.
They are only just clinging to one of the seven playoff positions right now, but on Saturday, Pablo Mastroeni put together a great game plan against the Seattle Sounders, and his players executed it to near perfection, conceding only two shots or target while not allowing them into a lot of dangerous areas.
For the first time since the departure of Freddy Juarez, this team were able to stifle their opponents last week and limit the threat of the opposition, something that has been an issue under the leadership of Mastroeni, where they had conceded 12 goals in his first four games in charge.
Playing on the road has been a problem for them all year long, though they were able to fire 13 shots on target in their last road match, winning a see-saw battle 4-3 against the San Jose Earthquakes, their first actual road win since April 24. Unless you count their 4-0 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps in July when they were technically the visiting team, though the Caps were playing their home games at Rio Tinto Stadium at that time because of COVID restrictions.
Finding consistency throughout a 90-minute encounter will be necessary for them down the homestretch of the regular season, as they tend to play well in spurts throughout a game but have not put together a solid performance in an entire match in quite some time.
One side that they have struggled to shut down in recent memory would be these very Timbers, who scored on their only three shots on target the last time Salt Lake came to Providence Park in early August, and their previous performance there was even worse when they conceded four times to Portland in 2020.
George Fochive scored his second of the year last Sunday, which held up as the game-winner, Dairon Asprilla notched his sixth of the campaign and his 13th with the club in the regular season since 2014 and Diego Valeri collected his 300th appearance for Portland in all competitions.
The Timbers will be missing defender Larrys Mabiala with a yellow card suspension, Ismaila Jome is gone for the season after undergoing left Achilles tendon surgery, Jeff Attinella went through season-ending right rectus femoris surgery, Andy Polo is done for the year with a right quad and knee injury and Eryk Williamson remains out with a left ACL tear.
Dario Zuparic is the Timbers iron man, having played 1890 minutes this season, the most of any player on the team, and Sebastian Blanco has five goals for Portland against Salt Lake as he set up their winning goal in their earlier meeting against them last month.
David Ochoa made his third successive start in goal for Claret and Cobalt last Saturday, collecting his fourth clean sheet this year, while Damir Kreilach scored his 10th goal of the season and Aaron Herrera made an immediate impact in his first game back from suspension, setting up the winning goal against the Sounders.
Portland Timbers possible starting lineup:
Clark; Van Rankin, McGraw, Zuparic, Bravo; Paredes, D. Chara; Y. Chara, Valeri, Asprilla; Mora
Real Salt Lake possible starting lineup:
Ochoa; Glad, Powder, Holt, Datkovic; Herrera, Ruiz, Meram; Rusnak, Kreilach, Rubin
We say: Portland Timbers 2-2 Real Salt Lake
When these two teams meet in Portland, it is traditionally a joy to watch for neutral fans as there have been 13 goals scored between them in the last two matches played at Providence Park.
There is a lot more consistency to the Timbers' game of late, but Salt Lake are at their best when their backs are up against the wall, and that might be the case for them this weekend as a loss could drop them below the playoff line.