Real Salt Lake expect open game from first-place showdown with Portland Timbers

SANDY, Utah – Real Salt Lake have scored just two goals in their last five games, so a weekend trip to Portland to face the Timbers and their second-ranked defense seems to come at an inopportune time.

But if the teams’ three previous meetings this season are any indication, Saturday’s game (10:30 pm ET, MLS Stream of the Week) will be a high-scoring one.

“We’ve scored a lot of goals against Portland this season,” defender Chris Wingert said. “It’s been pretty wide open when we’ve played them.”

The Timbers may play a more open game than many, but they have also excelled at keeping opponents off the scoreboard to the tune of a 1.03 goals-against average, tied with the Colorado Rapids for second in MLS behind Sporting Kansas City (0.91). Yet Salt Lake have averaged three goals per game against the Timbers this year, and the teams have combined for 15 goals in three head-to-head meetings.

Real Salt Lake earned a 2-1 US Open Cup semifinal win at home on Aug. 7 and a 4-2 regular-season win on Aug. 30, sandwiched around a dramatic 3-3 tie in Portland on Aug. 21. RSL head coach Jason Kreis said the teams’ similar aggression could be responsible for the scoring rise.

“I think both teams have aggressive mindsets,” Kreis said. “Both teams want to dictate the flow of the game. Both teams want to boss the game a little bit in all the statistical categories. And because of that, that opens up space to attack.”

The stakes for the game are almost as high as they come for a regular-season game: Portland could stay near the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings and guarantee a higher finish than Real Salt Lake with a win, while RSL could move back into first place with a win of their own, thereby controlling their own destiny heading into a season finale against last-place Chivas USA.

While all three head-to-head meetings have had their share of late drama, Saturday’s game could turn in the first 15 minutes. Real Salt Lake have scored less than 10 minutes into the game in both wins over Portland this season, while the Timbers are one of three MLS teams who remain unbeaten when scoring first.

“Sometimes early goals change games,” midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. “I think when we’ve played them, we’ve kind of always had an early goal somewhere.”

Any goal would be a welcome one for Real Salt Lake, which must deal with lingering memories of last year’s five-game scoring drought that led to elimination from both the CONCACAF Champions League and the MLS Cup playoffs.

Last year’s scoreless tie against Costa Rican club Herediano and this year’s US Open Cup final against D.C. United both saw RSL struggle to breakdown compact, defensive game plans, and Kreis knows RSL could see more of the same down the stretch – but probably not on Saturday.

“It’s a little bit of a mindset thing – just trying to get back into a positive rhythm going into the playoffs,” Kreis said. “But we need to figure out a way to get a result, regardless of how the opponent plays.”