As if the Portland Timbers needed a reminder about Major League Soccer’s Any Given Sunday status, look no further than last Saturday, in Houston, when they faced a Dynamo squad which the standings said should have been beatable. But amid one of the team’s worst performances of the season, beatable became irrelevant, and come full time of the 4-1 defeat, Portland were reminded: a small dip in intensity can produce a dramatic shift in results.
So what do we make of the team now, with Portland having shifted their sights to Minnesota United FC on Saturday (5pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS)? Again, this is a game which, based on the standings, looks winnable. But again, this also sets up as a match that could expose the inconsistency we’ve seen between strong road performances at Atlanta United, FC Dallas, and Seattle Sounders FC and disappointments at D.C. United, Houston and Sporting Kansas City.
Minnesota has a bad reputation, and unjustifiably so. They have no history of winning, which is not altogether surprising given they have only been in Major League Soccer for 1.8 seasons. As Timbers fans know too well, not every team can be Atlanta, hovering at the league’s heights after only two seasons. For other teams, a longer curve has to be plotted.
Minnesota had to embrace that longer curve from day one, targeting more modest gains in light of stadium priorities and an entirely different kind of market and investor base. But amid those realities, head coach Adrian Heath has built a team that can be dangerous. They have scored 40 goals in 28 games this year. That Columbus Crew SC team which, on Wednesday, having rotated because of midweek travel and congestion concerns, scored twice in in a 3-2 loss at Providence Park? They had only scored 35 times in 28 games before their Rose City arrival.
That provides some context to Minnesota that transcends their name. So you might be a long-time MLS fan and, because of their track record, not entirely respect the Loons. Fair enough! But their attack, at least, is more potent than Columbus’. It is more potent than the Sounders team that scored twice against the Timbers in the teams’ meeting at CenturyLink Field, and it is an attack that proved capable when Darwin Quintero posed Portland myriad problems in the team’s April meeting at Providence Park.
The point here isn’t that Minnesota has this unfairly overlooked attack that you, person who can read numbers in standings pages as well as any of us, needs to respect. You either believe MLS has a significant amount of competitive balance or you don’t, and both views are fine. But if you are going to single out the Loons because of their lack of history, their dearth of Diego Valeri-esque all-stars, or their place in this year’s standings, know that this year’s Timbers – a team whose point-per-game rate has been bested by only six other teams in the league – have stumbled against similar competition before.
Take that as an indictment of the Timbers, if you want, but if you look at the standings, there are only a few teams in MLS who are having a better season than Portland. There are only a handful of teams, who, unless they’re having a good day, can’t be bitten by a team that has a Quintero in its arsenal; has a player like Miguel Ibarra (seven goals, seven assists) coming into his versatile-yet-dangerous-MLS own; and players like Ibson and Rasmus Schuller who, solid in central midfield, are discarded in casual analysis merely because they’re not standouts.
That discard may one of the pivot points of 2018 MLS, though. There are standout players, sure, but in this era of TAM of the mandatory variety, and TAM of the discretionary variety, teams have more depth than ever. Even on teams like Minnesota United, who Heath would surely admit are a work in progress, there are players like Quintero who can break a game for you. There are players like Ibson and Schuller who can be foundational. There are players like Ibarra who, if the Timbers give a performance like they did against the Dynamo, would be this week’s Mauro Manotas.
This is not only about the Timbers, though improved performances on the road would certainly make them less susceptible to the league’s state. This is about that state. It is about the parity. It is about clichés like Any Given Sunday that have seemingly been espoused since the onset of MLS – clichés every upstart league latches onto as justification for teams’ meandering results.
Now, those clichés are real. Atlanta was reminded as much on Wednesday, when they were pushed to their limit at the league-worst San Jose Earthquakes. Seattle, too – picked off at home by the Philadelphia Union – was shown that the eyerolls from fans at teams thin on history, short of marquee talent, underestimate Major League Soccer.
You may see the Cleveland Browns (before this week), the San Diego Padres, Brooklyn Nets or Arizona Coyotes (that’s a hockey team, FYI) and think the week-to-week dialog that surrounds most U.S sports can be applied to MLS, but it shouldn’t. When opponents visit a team like Minnesota United, a loss is a very real possibility. “There’s no way they should lose to [team]” rarely applies, here. If Portland forgets that on Saturday, they could become the latest reminder of not only MLS’ new depth but the realities of a sport where, thanks to a single mistake, those realities can hit home.