PORTLAND, Ore. – The Portland Timbers, as MLS Cup champions obviously do, came off their last competitive match surrounded by plenty of fanfare.
All the celebrations related to the club’s first championship and the aftermath are really still resonating in the Rose City – just take a look at the hundreds of fans camping out around Providence Park days in advance of Sunday’s 2016 opener against Columbus Crew SC (1:30 pm ET, ESPN/ESPN Deportes) in a Cup rematch as evidence.
So when the Timbers take the field again, against the same team no less, the fanfare won’t be subsiding anytime soon.
The championship banner will be unfurled with the help of legendary former mascot Timbers Jim and current mascot Timber Joey. The Timbers Army is, as with every season opener, planning an elaborate tifo. The first 7,500 fans will be given commemorative championship pennants and the chance to take photos with the MLS Cup trophy.
And Timbers players and coaches are approaching the match with the mixture of eagerness to soak in the celebrations while also keeping a levelheaded focus to begin their championship defense on the right foot.
“I’d say it’s a little bit of both,” Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who is also reveling in his long-term contract extension signed earlier this week, said after training Friday at Providence Park. “I’ve never experienced a banner going up, and I don’t think [the fans] have, so it’s going be a fun experience. But hopefully it doesn’t get the best of us.”
Really not a whole lot has changed heading into Sunday’s match.
The Timbers will field a very similar starting lineup from last December’s championship match, as will Crew SC. The Timbers will be without two starters from that match – defender Jorge Villafaña and winger Rodney Wallace – while Crew SC are expected to field the exact same XI.
And as one would expect, both sides are among the favorites to compete for another title.
“I think it will be a great day for us and the fans,” Timbers midfielder Diego Chara, who like Nagbe signed a long-term contract extension this week, said Friday. “But we are focusing on the game, our work and the game and to win three points.”
Not only would getting over again on Columbus be a nice way to set the marker down as the top team in MLS once again, but the Timbers are also eyeing one thing that has eluded them under head coach Caleb Porter, who is entering his fourth year at the helm: a fast start to the regular season.
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In the first three seasons under Porter, the Timbers have never produced more than six points from their first five games despite advancing to the Western Conference Championship in 2013 and their success last year.
“They’re in a good spot,” Porter said of his players. “I talked to them today about these first games because first games are interesting. Every game is the same, but first games and playoff games, it’s a little bit different – and even just getting back in that rhythm of playing that first game. These guys are pros, but there’s a lot of things that go into playing that game. It’s the preparation, but it’s also off the field and what they do… just getting in that rhythm again so they can perform once the whistle blows.”
And with the stated goals of adding a Supporters’ Shield and another MLS Cup to their trophy case, Porter is eying 15 points from their first nine games, just under the 1.75 points per game rate that Porter has calculated will put his team in contention for the Supporters' Shield, a solid start will be paramount.
“I think for us we just want to start off strong no matter who we’re playing,” Nagbe said. “The last couple seasons we haven’t started off strong, so hopefully we can this year.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.