Shorthanded or not, Portland Timbers are confident they can go toe-to-toe with Real Salt Lake

BEAVERTON, Ore. – The week and the opponent has changed, but the story for the Portland Timbers remains the same.

Once again they are heading into a crucial Western Conference matchup, this time on the road against frontrunner Real Salt Lake (Friday, 10 pm ET, NBC Sports), without a number of key players. And once again, they’re not making excuses, and hoping to rely on their depth to stay within reach of the conference top spot.

But the question remains: have the team’s injuries and absences finally caught up to them? They are now looking at three losses in their last six games, across all competitions, with just one win in that span.

“We built this team to be deep, and it’s been competitive all year,” said midfielder Ben Zemanski, who has been asked to step in for captain Will Johnson at central midfield in the past, but is nursing a knock of his own at the moment. “When guys step up they step and when their name is called they step up to the job. So I don’t think we’re feeling that at all.”

The Timbers are coming off a painful 1-0 loss last weekend to rival Seattle Sounders, a game in which they were not only without Johnson, but defensive midfielder Diego Chara (suspension) as well. Heading into Friday’s game at Rio Tinto Stadium, Johnson will be out again as he nurses a shoulder injury. Joining him on the bench will be central defender Pa Modou Kah, who will serve a one-game suspension after he picked up his fifth yellow card of the season against Seattle. Additionally, defender/midfielder Jack Jewsbury is questionable after reinjuring an ankle against Seattle.

With veteran center back Mamadou “Futty” Danso listed as out, the Timbers will likely hand Rauwshan McKenzie his first start in a Timbers jersey alongside second-year pro Andrew Jean-Baptiste.

“It is what it is, we have injuries and we have to manage it,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said. “We won’t make excuses, but it’s a reality. We have some of our first choice guys not in. But I’m confident that we’ll approach this game the right way, I’m confident we’ll be in the game, I’m confident we have a good plan, I’m confident we have good guys in the lineup and if we perform well I’m confident that we’ll have a chance to win.”

Their last two meetings with RSL have garnered disappointing results, the first a 2-1 loss Aug. 7 in a US Open Cup semifinal game in Utah and the second a 3-3 draw Aug. 21 at JELD-WEN Field. In both games, Portland controlled large swaths of action only to see a wanted result escape them each time.

The draw was especially troublesome for Portland, who saw RSL escape with a point thanks to a stoppage time goal.

“We know Salt Lake,” Porter said. “I thought we had a lot of success against them the first two games if you look at the way the games went. … We’ve had success, so we know how to be in a position to give ourselves a chance to win games. But we have some challenges in this game that we didn’t have in other games, perhaps, with injuries.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.