Real Salt Lake: Portland struggling to find its footing early

Major League Soccer • Deck_here_with_period.
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Sandy • With evolution comes adjustment. When a club soars under the radar and suddenly makes that leap from a middle-of-the-road franchise to a title contender, it catches the opposition off guard. It could last an entire season, or the rise could fizzle.

It's the whole sustaining part that makes it a bit more difficult.

Still early into the 2014 Major League Soccer season, the Portland Timbers are finding that out. A year after bursting onto the scene with their first-ever playoff berth, winning the regular season Western Conference title and emerging as one of the league's more marketable clubs, the Timbers are slow out of the gates.

The chainsaw-wielding super fan Timber Joey has had his opportunities to slice off a piece of timber this year, but the club has suffered through tough stretches, conceding late goals, often unable to protect leads. Portland is 0-2-4 to start 2014 and rolls into Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday needing a win to rev up an otherwise disappointing start to the year.

"It's still early in the season without question," said RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy. "It wouldn't surprise me to see a team like that to find their form at some point and rip off a bunch of results in a row. I think you're just seeing each year pretty much every team coming in with the mindset of making the playoffs. I don't think anyone goes into a season and says, 'Playoffs are out of reach this season, we'll focus on next year.'"

Four of Portland's first six games came at the imposing Providence Park in downtown Portland, but in each outing, the Timbers couldn't manage more than a draw. Road trips to Colorado and FC Dallas ended in losses as the back line has struggled. The Timbers are tied for most goals allowed with 11 through six matches.

RSL coach Jeff Cassar said it's too early for other teams to look at Portland as suffering a sort of sophomore slump after its banner year in 2013.

"Portland's going to get it right," he said. "They're doing a lot of good things. I just think they're paying the price for a few of their mistakes, but their possession's still good, they're still creating good, quality chances, but they're kind of paying for their mistakes right now. That's tough."

The sample size is small and the league-wide respect for Portland's dominance at home and style of play will provide a benefit of the doubt for at least the time being.

Bad starts are hardly a harbinger of what's to come. Just ask RSL.

After winning the MLS Cup in 2009, Real Salt Lake started the next season just 2-1-3, but righted itself and went on to contend for both the MLS Cup and Champions League. The team learned how to adapt, both in that season and those that followed.

"Teams started to figure us out in 2011 and 2012," said RSL defender Nat Borchers. "It seemed like teams were starting to adjust to us and figure things out. I don't think anyone's figured [Portland] out. I just think they're probably tinkering with their system a little bit and finding out who's motivated and who's not."

To turn the corner, the Timbers must snap a 10-game winless streak against RSL across all competitions. But Real Salt Lake hardly views Portland as a slumping team.

"They have, if not as good, probably a better team because of the [off-season] additions and we know it's going to be an extremely tough challenge," defender Chris Wingert said.

Twitter: @chriskamrani —

Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake

At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy

Kickoff » Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

TV » CW30

Radio » 700 AM

Records » RSL 2-0-4; Portland 0-2-4

Last meeting » RSL 1, Portland 0 (Nov. 24, 2013)

About RSL » RSL is 7-1-3 all time across all competitions against the Timbers and went 4-0-2 against Portland in 2013. … RSL knocked No. 1-seeded Portland out of the playoffs in 2013, defeating the Timbers 5-2 on goal aggregate in the Western Conference final. … In six matches against Portland in 2013, RSL had nine different goal scorers and seven as siting on 14 goals against Portland. … Coming off a 2-2 draw at Philadelphia on April 12, four of the club's next six matches will be at Rio Tinto Stadium where they are 1-0-1 so far this year. … RSL will be without Robbie Findley (knee), Rich Balchan (groin) and Cole Grossman (shin) Saturday against the Timbers. … Head coach Jeff Cassar said forward Joao Plata (hamstring) and goalkeeper Nick Rimando (knee) have a shot at being involved in some form Saturday.

About Portland » The Timbers' lone win against RSL came in the first-ever meeting between the two sides in April 2011 when Portland beat RSL 1-0 in Portland. … Since, the club is riding a 10-game winless streak across all competitions against its Western Conference rival. …Having had four of its first six matches at home at Providence Park, the Timbers haven't been able to find their first win of 2014 having drew four times at home and lost twice on the road. … New singing Gaston Fernandez has proven to be a vital addition for Portland as he is tied for most goals on the team with two. … The Timbers defense has struggled to start the season conceding 11 goals in six matches, which is tied for most goals allowed throughout the league.