Real Salt Lake made a splash this week in acquiring Juan Manuel Martinez, but the Argentine forward might not be able to provide much help where it’s presently needed: the back line.
The newly signed designated player who spent the last three seasons with Boca Juniors won’t debut until at least next week, which gives the club at least one opportunity Saturday night at home against the Portland Timbers to distance itself from a string of embarrassing results before integrating him into the lineup.
In its last three matches against MLS clubs, Salt Lake (7-9-8) has conceded 13 goals, and its 3-1 defeat in Kansas City on Wednesday cost it a spot in the U.S. Open Cup final.
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This home match turns the page from a hectic road trip that sent Real from D.C. to Guatemala City to face Municipal in the CONCACAF Champions League to Vancouver to Kansas City in 12 days, with scores about as bizarre as the travel route.
"I think we’ve had some odd results," coach Jeff Cassar said after his team let a lead slip away against Kansas City. "The D.C. game was 6-4, against Vancouver 4-0 and we need to keep the lead longer than we did. Seemed like we were a little frazzled and the travel doesn’t help."
Being at home has been an almost sure fix with Real going 7-0-5 at Rio Tinto Stadium since the start of May. The 12-match unbeaten run across all competitions is one off equaling one that lasted from July 4, 2014, through the first two matches of this season.
Matches with Portland have also generally had a stabilizing effect with Salt Lake owning a 9-2-5 advantage in the series, including five shutouts in six matches with a scoreless streak of 287 minutes. Two of those clean sheets have come this season, with a 2-0 Open Cup victory on July 1 being the most recent. Longtime Salt Lake playmaker Javier Morales scored one of those goals, giving him five in his last 10 matches against Portland.
"Javier’s the guy that pulls the strings for them," Timbers defender Nat Borchers told the club’s official website. "He’s always the toughest guy I think to deal with, definitely when it comes to their attack. Making sure that we keep track of him is going to be the biggest focus for us."
The Timbers (10-8-6) have been more impressive defensively with consecutive shutouts running their league-leading total to 10, but their 1-0 home win over Chicago on Aug. 7 was their first victory in five matches. Still, the 24 games it took them to reach 10 wins is the fastest pace in club history.
Fanendo Adi scored in the 48th minute for his second goal in three matches, but Portland has produced only one other goal in the past five league matches. Its 25 goals in 24 league matches (1.04 goals per game) rank near the bottom of the league.
"I think it all starts in the back," Borchers said. "I think really to get our attack going, we’ve got to make sure we find those passing lanes to the midfielders and the strikers because really that’ll put them in excellent positions to turn and run at other defenses."
It’s been even more difficult to spark on the road, where Portland has one goal in an 0-4-1 span. The Timbers’ minus-13 road goal differential is worse than all Western Conference teams other than Salt Lake’s (minus-16).