The Portland Timbers found out their immediate 2021 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League fate on Wednesday night, having been drawn against Honduran club Marathón in competition's Round of 16. The teams will face off over home-and-home matches during the first two weeks of April, with the winner advancing to a potential meeting with Mexican giants Club América.
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Here is the quick reaction to the Timbers' SCCL draw:
Let's start with the first reaction: How are you feeling about the Timbers' Champions League draw?
Jake Zivin, broadcast voice of the Timbers: First of all, there are different ways to look at a draw like this. Do you want the (perceived) easiest opponent? Do you want the most intriguing matchup? Do you look at your club’s path down the bracket or just at the first matchup?
I’ll go through each. On paper, I’d rank Marathón fifth among the eight possible opponents in terms of difficulty. Leon, Saprissa, Alajuelense, and Olimpia would have been more difficult, while Real Esteli, Atletico Pantoja, and Arcahaie would have been easier. But, that’s on paper. The Timbers will have to play the first leg of their home-and-home series in San Pedro Sula, which won’t be easy. In their two previous CCL appearances, they’re 1-2-0 in Central America - losing at Olimpia (Honduras) and Saprissa (Costa Rica), while their only win came at CD Dragon (El Salvador), which is a much smaller club than Marathón. However, while it could have been better, it also could have been (much) worse.
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Personally, in a competition like CCL, I find the most intrigue in seeing how the Timbers match up against other big clubs from the region. They’ve yet to play a Liga MX team in CCL, and that is something I badly want to see. So, personally, a little part of me was rooting for the Timbers to get drawn with Club León in the Round of 16, to guarantee that matchup. As for the intrigue of playing CD Marathón? It’s OK - anytime you get to see a brand new opponent, there’s something fun about it - but it means that a matchup with a Liga MX team will have to wait.
Which brings me to a look down the bracket. A potential quarterfinal match with Club América is simply scintillating. Club América is arguably the biggest, most successful, and most popular club in Mexico. They’ve won 13 Liga MX titles (most of any club) and 2 CCL titles. They play in Estadio Azteca, the legendary, cavernous home of the Mexican national team. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be fun, and more than anything informative - a true test of where the Timbers stand in the region.
Ultimately, the Timbers are where they want to be - one of four American clubs competing with the best in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. We love to analyze a bracket in our country, but really, it matters little - to become the first MLS team to win CCL, they’ll have to beat some great teams, regardless of how the hollow ping pong balls were drawn on Wednesday evening.
About these draws — be it Open Cup or for some of our players, something like an FA Cup or a Copa Libertadores — what's going through your mind as you find out your matchup?
Ross Smith, broadcast analyst, Portland Timbers: There is always immediate excitement when you learn your tournament path. With any bracket, you want three things: a very "winnable" match to begin; a unique experience; and a big occasion along the way. The Timbers have gotten all three.
A "winnable" match is mentioned with great respect to the opposition, in that of course you need to play to the level and standard expected of you. But as long as you do just that, your first matches (home and away) should help to get your feet under you and build momentum.
Unique experiences come from traveling to different countries and playing against opponents you wouldn’t normally face. You want to travel somewhere where the culture is different, the soccer setup isn’t what you are used to, and the locals are looking at you as an outsider! As difficult as it can be to play in a venue where the fans are on top of you, conditions may be challenging, and it feels like everyone and their dog are against you, those experiences bring teams together.
Then the big occasion. As a player, you can’t help but put one eye onto what potentially awaits in a bracket and hope you get a match where a lot of eyeballs will be watching - a mountain of a match that can bring out the best of a player, or conversely, eat a player up. The Timbers have that in a potential quarterfinal with Club América. It's a mouth-watering prospect for the CCL to see big clubs with big players and big fan bases come nose to nose.
These are an exciting few days for all clubs and players involved after this initial draw, as everyone’s mind is filled with possibilities. Every team and every player can go to bed tonight dreaming they will be the next to lift the cup.
Now that we know the Timbers' Round of 16 opponent, what should we know about Marathón?
Jon Arnold, author of the Getting CONCACAFed newsletter, MLS coverage for The Striker Texas: Marathón is an interesting draw. They're a Honduran team that has a lot of history, but right now they are in a very difficult moment. They were contending for the last Honduran title, played against Olimpia in the final, but fell short even though they had a competitive squad. Since that game, they have not won.
I would expect their form to change. They are a proud team, and they are making moves in the transfer market. But generally, I don't see Marathón as one of the stronger Central American teams that the Timbers could have drawn. When you look at the success Olimpia had in the last Champions League (reaching the semifinals), how Alajuelense has worked in the market to acquire players that could enable them to make a surprise run in the SCCL, and the historic strength of Saprissa — which, of course, Timbers fans will know both from seeing them play in Concacaf Champions League as well as acquiring players from that club in the past — I think that Marathón is a team that MLS clubs would be relatively happy to draw.
While there's no easy matchup in the CCL, to me, this is a draw that the Timbers have to be pretty pleased with compared to what they could have faced.
Wrap it all up, what does this mean for Portland's SCCL hopes?
Richard Farley, writer, Timbers.com: Portland is back in a place where, if they play to their potential, they should advance in Champions League. Does that sound familiar? For longtime Timbers fans, it should. This is what it felt like in 2014, when the team's biggest obstacle with Honduras's Olimpia. This also what it felt like in 2016, when Costa Rican titans Deportivo Saprissa stood in their way. Both times, the Timbers were eliminated before the knockout round.
The current Timbers team is deeper than it was before, and in that way, it's probably better prepared to handle the demands of SCCL. Major League Soccer's talent level, in general, has leaped forward since the Timbers' last Champions League game. After today's draw, though, Portland's Champions League past is staring them right in the face, and while it may feel strange to bring up the past on a day the team learned its future, that past is going to come up often as April approaches.
Beyond Marathón, allow me to echo Jake and Ross: a potential quarterfinal match with Club América is what Champions League is all about. One of Concacaf's giants descending on Goose Hollow could become a signature Providence Park moment, and while you don't necessarily want to meet a favorite so early in a competition, at some point, teams have to show their level. At least a potential match with América would happen before a one-game final, guaranteeing Las Águilas would make a trip north.
That, however, is getting ahead of ourselves. Marathón is first – dealing with the club's CCL past is first. If Portland has learned its lessons, the matchups with clubs like América will come.
FULL Timbers.com SCCL draw rundown: