First place Salt Lake in for test at Jeld-Wen

Playing in front of Timbers Army presents problems

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

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Real Salt Lake arrives in Portland with the most points in Major League Soccer.

But RSL knows a difficult test awaits on Wednesday in a place that Timbers coach Caleb Porter describes as his team's fortress -- and the challenge is heightened because Portland can climb into first place with a win.

The Timbers have won seven of 11 league home games, tying three and losing only an early-season match to Montreal. At Jeld-Wen Field, Portland has scored 19 goals and surrendered only eight in league play.

Porter said the vocal crowd provides extra energy and confidence for the Portland players.

"I think the guys have an aura, a bit of a swagger, with the fans, and with our ability to attack teams and be proactive," Porter said.

Even without their fans pushing them, the Timbers showed RSL something on Aug. 7 in Sandy, Utah. On that night, Real Salt Lake advanced to the U.S. Open Cup final by beating Portland 2-1. But the Timbers had 60 percent of

possession -- unusual for an RSL opponent -- and could have won with better finishing.

"It's a lot to deal with," RSL defender Chris Wingert said of the Timbers' attack. "But we're hoping to keep the ball a little bit better than we have as of late, and that will be our best defense."

One of the storylines is the absence of Portland's Will Johnson (shoulder injury) and RSL's Kyle Beckerman (suspension). The former teammates play similar roles for their teams, orchestrating play from a deep midfield position. Each is the captain, and provides on-field glue for his club.

Porter rates Beckerman, a U.S. national team midfielder, as one of the best in the league playing as a lone defensive midfielder. But the Timbers coach said RSL has plenty of good alternatives.

The same is true for Porter. Ben Zemanski played well in Johnson's absence on Saturday, a 2-1 Portland win over FC Dallas, and figures to start again alongside Diego Chara in a defensive midfield spot for the Timbers.

"We've won games without Kyle. They've won games without Will," said RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy, who could drop into Beckerman's role. "This is just how it goes in MLS. … This is when the better teams show how important depth is."

If the Timbers have an edge besides home-field advantage, it's that they have played two fewer games than has Real Salt Lake. In fact, in terms of points per game played, Portland enters Wednesday best in the Western Conference.

Sure, there are two months left in regular-season. But the outcomes of three head-to-head battles between Real Salt Lake and Portland loom as significant. For RSL, games against the Timbers represent one third of their remaining matches.

"For me, the differences between the good teams and the poor teams right now are miniscule," RSL coach Jason Kreis said.

By late Wednesday, the Timbers hope the difference between themselves and the league leaders is nonexistent.

Nonprofits aided -- The Timbers on Tuesday awarded $75,500 in grants to eight youth-focused, nonprofit organizations through the Portland Timbers Community Fund. Receiving grants were AC Portland, All Hands Raised, Centro Cultural of Washington County, Girls Inc., I Have a Dream Foundation Oregon, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, Playworks, and Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center.