PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Timbers defender Michael Harrington has been around MLS long enough to know it can be a cruel league.
With his team still in the thick of the playoff hunt just months after they were atop the Western Conference standings, he recalls a similar situation a few years back when he played for Sporting Kansas City. That year, SKC were in the Supporters’ Shield race all season before a rough stretch put them in danger of missing out on the playoffs all together if they didn’t get results in the last month.
Kansas City responded by making the playoffs, and that’s exactly what Harrington expects out of the Timbers, who are facing playoff contending teams in five of their final six games starting with Friday’s matchup against the Colorado Rapids at JELD-WEN Field (7pm PT, NBC Sports Network, 750 The Game / La Pantera 940).
“There’s a lot of parity in this league,” Harrington said after Thursday’s sun-drenched training session at JELD-WEN. “We know that and everybody knows that. It’s how the MLS works. It’s a long season, but for the most part it always comes down to this part of the season.”
An inconsistent stretch over the last two and a half months – after completing the first half of the season tied for the conference lead with Real Salt Lake – has dropped the Timbers into the fifth and final playoff spot. But they’re still trailing third-place Colorado by just two points.
After Colorado, the LA Galaxy come to town, and they’re just a point ahead of Portland. Top of the table Seattle is only six points away.
“We’re still in a great spot, great position,” Harrington said. “The next two weeks are huge because those two teams are right ahead of us. That’s the most important thing because we have the opportunity, at home, to jump over the two teams in front of us. That’s big.”
Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said he likes the position of being the “hunter rather than the hunted.”
“I think our mindset because of that will be more hungry perhaps,” Porter said. “So it’s mentally for me good timing with where we’re at, two points off them, a chance to overtake them, a chance to hunt them. And there’s a chance they might be in a more passive mindset because they’re in a better position than us.”
It’s also good timing, Porter said, because Portland are as healthy and complete as they’ve been in second half of the season.
Jamaican forward Ryan Johnson, who is tied for the team lead with eight goals, has been back with the team for a full week after missing one game and playing just nine minutes last weekend due to international duty. Midfielder Diego Valeri, who has come off the bench in the last two games due to a groin injury, is getting healthier, Porter said.
And Porter said veteran defender/midfielder Jack Jewsbury, who has missed five out of the last six games with an ankle injury, will also be available. They’re all players who were in top form during the Timbers’ franchise-record 15-game unbeaten streak in the season’s first half.
“Experience is very important this time of year,” Porter said. “And the more experience you can have the better. … And at this point we need to go with what we know will happen vs. guessing what will happen.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.