In 2013, Real Salt Lake had no more heated rival than the Portland. And the Claret-and-Cobalt is looking forward to turning the heat up again when it hosts the Timbers on Saturday night.
“It's going to be a battle,” Real goalkeeper Jeff Attinella told reporters. “It's going to be a big-time fight. You know they want to beat us and we want to beat them. It's developed into quite a nice little rivalry.”
Certainly, the six games between the two teams in 2013 were all important. RSL eliminated Portland in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals. The two battled for the regular-season Western Conference championship; Portland prevailing by a single point. And then RSL eliminated Portland from the MLS playoffs, winning the Western Conference in the process.
But what RSL fans sometimes forget and Timbers fans wish they could forget is that, for all the heat this rivalry has generated, it hasn't been close to an even match. Salt Lake won four of six matches between the two last season, with two ties.
Toss in the Claret-and-Cobalt's 1-0 win back on April 19, and they're on an 11-game unbeaten streak (8-0-3) against Portland. The Timbers' only win came the first time the two teams met in April 2011.
And Portland — a preseason favorite to repeat conference champions this year — has struggled. The Timbers (3-4-7, 16 points) are in a three-way tie for sixth place in the West; ninth place based on goal differential.
“Even though they've gone through some tough times this season, they obviously have some great talent,” RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy told reporters. “Some very good players. And in this league, you can see anything from week to week. So we obviously need to be up for it and ready for it.”
Real Salt Lake has had more than its share of challenges recently as well. Captain Kyle Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando are headed to Brazil with the USMNT. Leading scorer Alvaro Saborio suffered a foot injury training with the Costa Rican national team and is out 3-4 months. Forward Joao Plata — tied with Saborio as the team's leading scorer — has missed almost half the season with a strained hamstring. And those are just two of a slew of injuries.
The team suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday — a 4-0 blowout in Seattle; it gave up a late goal in Columbus on Wednesday and was tied for the seventh time this season; and Saturday's game against Portland will be its third in eight days.
Which is why Cassar put a decidedly unfamiliar lineup on the field on Wednesday, resting defenders Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran (who was subbed in in the 79th minute). Midfielder Luke Mulholland and forward Devon Sandoval were also subbed in late in the game.
“We got some guys some rest tonight, which is good,” Grabavoy said.
And there's hope RSL's extremely think forward corps may get a boost on Saturday.
“I think Joao Plata's going to be putting himself into the mix,” Cassar told reporters. “So that's a good thing for us.”
And the past is the past, as far as RSL is concerned. Including that 11-game unbeaten streak against the Timbers.
“I don't think about them. I'm focusing on us,” midfielder Luis Gil, who scored RSL's goal in the 1-1 tie with Columbus, told reporters. “We're going to be at home, so we've got to go in with a strong mentality. We're going to go up against a good team. But I feel like we've got the guys to do it.”