SANDY, Utah — When Real Salt Lake take on the Portland Timbers Wednesday night in the semifinal of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup (9:30 pm ET; streaming on USsoccer.com), fixing what has been a leaky defense will be priority No. 1.
RSL have been employing a patchwork backline over the past several months thanks to injuries, international call-ups and suspensions. But for the first time in a long time, they’ll be near 100 percent as outside backs Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert are back.
"These guys just get it," said RSL coach Jason Kreis told reporters following training on Tuesday. “They have been with us so long that you don't have to tell them where they need to be or why they need to be somewhere. Their brain just does it. They make unconscious movements to put themselves in the right spots defensively.
"They are both very good with the ball, and as we know we need our outside backs to be contributing in the offensive third. Both of them have already done that this year for us and done that over the past few years. So they are both very important players for us."
Beltran also missed a month while on US national team duty, but Wingert was out for a red card and an extra-game suspension for a rough foul on Sporting Kansas City’s Kei Kamara.
Without the pair, the team has given up eight goals in the last three games – still maintaining their lead in the Supporters’ Shield race, but only just.
"It's been difficult," said Wingert of watching the defense struggle, "but also difficult just not being out there and knowing it is my own fault I'm not out there with the guys — you know, bummer. But it is what it is and I need to move past it and I'm glad the suspension has been served. I am ready to move on and get back out there and hopefully help the team."
It’s a team that have had the good fortune of avoiding all top-flight competition in the Open Cup thus far, though they haven’t avoided all scares. They were taken to extra time by the Atlanta Silverbacks in a particularly memorable game, and then played extras again in the next round, a 5-2 win over the Charleston Battery.
In both those games, playmaker Javier Morales was key. And while RSL are happy to have Beltran and Wingert back, that’s balanced by the possible absence of Morales, who left last Saturday’s game against Colorado with some discomfort in his right adductor.
The 33-year-old did train on Tuesday, but his availability remains in question – and Kreis remained tight-lipped.
“He’s in consideration. I have to go talk to him to see how available he is,” said Kreis of his playmaker. “I think we would have to think that he is available for some. I just don’t know how long. If you enter a game like this that could potentially go 120 minutes, that has to be another consideration as well.”