The Portland Timbers will have been anxious to get back to the field since Saturday, when the team was humbled in a 4-1 loss at the Houston Dynamo.
Four points to the good in a playoff chase that’s reached its final six rounds, last year’s Western Conference first-place finishers are still in line for a postseason return. But with new doubts surfacing after their weekend’s lopsided loss, Giovanni Savarese’s team will be eager to prove their latest trip to BBVA Compass Stadium was an outlier, not the start of a new pattern.
That process starts on Wednesday, with Columbus Crew SC visiting Providence Park (7:30pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS) coming off a strong weekend draw at FC Dallas. That schedule, though, puts Gregg Berhalter’s team in one of MLS’ customary unforgiving stretches: traveling midweek, across time zones, dealing with the type of three-games-in-eight-days stretch that defines this part of the league’s calendar.
The Timbers are in the middle of their own three-in-eight gauntlet, presenting a number of challenges at transcend those offered by Columbus. Here is tonight’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three areas of focus ahead of this year’s visit from Crew SC:
1. Not forgetting Houston
You’ll frequently hear players, after a big, surprising loss, say the team needs to move on as quickly as possible. They don’t always go there, but it’s a common refrain. Sometimes, performances are so aberrational, there’s nothing you can do but treat them as aberrations and move on.
There were, however, lessons to learn from the loss to Houston. We devoted time to them in this week’s Inside PTFC, but long story short, there were multiple, individual failings on each Dynamo goal which were not only out-of-character with the Timbers’ season but contrary to how those individuals have played throughout the season.
It was a fugazi, Saturday’s performance, but the team has to be wary. Maybe nobody realized it before, but that kind of form is in them. The team can, if they lose focus, take their progress for granted and end up on the wrong end of a bad result against a middle-of-the-road opponent.
Portland shouldn’t forget Houston. They’ve got to build from it.
2. And yes, rotation
It was getting so old, talking about squad rotation, that last week’s KeyBank Scouting Report almost made this section into a Shakespearean soliloquy. No, seriously. “To rotate, or not to rotate,” that was the question we were building on, but in our slings and arrows of editorial misfortune, we abandoned the thought. Quite frankly, it was more effort than it was worth to do it right before Saturday’s game.
There is a reason this topic keeps coming up, though. Amid a summer that’s been backloaded with three-game weeks, something MLS seems to like doing to its teams each season, rotation has been a major issue; or, better put, how Savarese and his staff decide to rotate. As we heard when the team dropped back-to-back games at D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City last month, Savarese thought how his staff handled the challenge was, well, a learning experience.
In Houston, Liam Ridgewell was out, and Samuel Armenteros was on the bench. Andy Polo was out of the XI, too, and neither Alvas Powell nor Jorge Villafaña saw a full 90 minutes. Tactical? Physical? Sometimes it’s difficult to tell within this schedule congestion. Regardless, the decisions the Timbers’ coaching staff have to make in these crowded times become more crucial, as each impacts not only the given game but the next one.
Tonight brings that next one. Will Ridgewell and Armenteros be back in the team’s starting XI? Those seem like good bets, but what of the team’s midfield? And how many minutes can Diego Valeri and Sebastián Blanco be pushed to, this week?
Each game may yield a different set of answers, and it is almost impossible to know how most players’ bodies will react until you actually give them something to react to. But with the team slated to fly to Minnesota for Saturday’s game within the next 32 hours, Wednesday’s choices may be about slightly more than just Columbus.
3. Playoffs in sight
The fact that there are only six games left in the regular season makes those rotation decisions all the more important. Three at home. Three on the road. All those games are winnable and, even beyond MLS’ normal “any given matchday” rhetoric, all losable. The Timbers have put themselves in position to make back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in their MLS history, but they’re also in a place where the even year-odd year pattern could yet continue:
On Saturday, Seattle Sounders FC’s win over the Vancouver Whitecaps was a blessing and a curse. The curse, a big one, is that it ended this year’s Cascadia Cup competition, giving the annual regional honor to Seattle. The blessing, though, was the Sounders keeping points out of the Whitecaps’ column, leaving Portland a place lower in the standings but no worse for wear when it comes to qualifying for the playoffs.
Still, all three of the team’s remaining home games (Columbus, FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake) feel like must wins. Those wins, at least, would give Portland some margin for error when they visit Minnesota, RSL and Vancouver over the season’s final month-plus. If the Timbers can pick up some points on the road, too, the emerging concern about their playoff return could dissipate, soon.