SANDY, Utah — When Real Salt Lake lines up against Portland on Friday night, an old friend will be missing. It will be the first time the two teams meet since Timbers Captain Will Johnson broke his leg last month.
“He's a big part of their locker room,” RSL Captain Kyle Beckerman told reporters. “They're going to be missing something, that's for sure.”
Johnson, an RSL stalwart from 2008-12 and a member of the 2009 MLS Cup champions, was injured just seconds into the Sept. 27 game in Toronto, colliding with defender Mark Bloom and fracturing the tibia and fibula in his right leg.
RSL defender Nat Borchers said the loss to Portland would be like Salt Lake losing Beckerman. “The heart and soul of the team. The best player on the team. They've done tremendously, I think, without him. They've got great players, but they're definitely not the same team.”
Portland has, however, won both games since Johnson went down — back-to-back wins over San Jose. And the Timbers desperately need a result against RSL on Friday night, because a loss will eliminate Portland from playoff contention.
And that has RSL players talking about a playoff atmosphere in Providence Park.
“I think every time you step into that stadium, it always feels big,” Borchers said. “With the atmosphere and the rivalry we have with that team and all the great games we've had against them. It feels big. It feels special, just given all the circumstances.”
Among the circumstances — not only is RSL fighting to hold off Dallas for the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference, but a third-place finish might give the Claret-and-Cobalt a berth in the 2015 CONCACAF Champions League. Even if RSL doesn't win MLS Cup.
With Seattle and Los Angeles battling it out for the Supporters' Shield and Western Conference title (and the Sounders already having a CCL berth by winning the U.S. Open Cup), there's a good chance RSL could land a CCL berth by finishing third in the West and finishing with more points than the No. 2 team in the East — should L.A., Seattle or D.C. win the MLS Cup.
“It's definitely on my mind,” Cassar said. “I'm trying not to put that onto the players' minds. But we know what's at stake.
“If we finish fourth, you can write off Champions League.”
Cassar expects to have goalkeeper Nick Rimando, returning from USMNT duty, back in the lineup. And that's a big return, given that back-up Jeff Attinella injured his ankle and was barely able to play in a win over San Jose on Saturday.
“It's amazing that the guy played in that game,” the coach said.
Forwards Joao Plata and Alvaro Saborio are also expected back from international team duty with Ecuador and Costa Rica, respectively. But defender Chris Schuler, who suffered a broken nose and fractured orbital bones in a collision with Borchers in a loss to Chivas on Oct. 5, is not expected to play.
Schuler was fitted for a protective mask this week, and “a few things have to happen” for him to avoid surgery,” Cassar said.
“We're trying to go that route, I believe, as long as everything heals in a certain way. But at the end of the day, it's Chris' decision, and we're going to stand behind him.”