June 1 may have felt like a turning point in the Portland Timbers’ season – the end of a 12-game, season-opening road run that had loomed since the release of Major League Soccer’s 2019 schedule – but with this week’s return from a two-game stretch in Minnesota, the Timbers are faced with something that wasn’t there over two months ago: a schedule which, save one September trip to Kansas City, has nothing but home games until playoffs.
With their arrival in Portland early Thursday morning, Timbers began a stretch of 43 straight nights at home. Even for a baseball team, where teams might enjoy a couple of prolonged home stands each season, that’s a staggering number. Instead of alternating road games with home, spending an average of two or three games each fortnight on the road, Portland players, coaches and staff can settle into a routine, knowing that Providence Park is the only place their soccer will be played until fall.
This is where the gap will really be made up. As of now, Portland is seven points back of second place in the Western Conference. Perhaps as importantly, there are six teams separating them from that spot, behind league-leading Los Angeles FC. But for every road trip their competition has between now and the end of their home run, the Timbers will get an extra day’s training, or an extra day’s recovery time. Instead of devoting hours upon hours to busses, airports, planes and hotels, Portland’s players will have their own cars, their families, their homes and their beds.
Even if the 10 games before going to Sporting don’t provide enough time to pass all their competition, how much better are the Timbers going to be after a month-and-a-half of consistent (and added) training time? Or, how much were they being held back my having to constantly demands of the road?
Perhaps Saturday is too soon to find out, but after Vancouver Whitecaps FC visit Goose Hollow (8pm PT, TICKETS, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)), Portland’s life will fully return to normal. There’s a mid-week game coming, but the prep for that will be done entirely here, not finished in some distant hotel. Once Saturday’s match caps their three-game, seven-day week, the Timbers can start leveraging the virtues their March and April bought. They can truly start tracking down the field.
Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report: three areas of focus as the Timbers welcome the rival Whitecaps to Providence Park:
The new reality
When we last saw the Timbers at Providence Park, the team was leaving the field after one of its season’s best performances. With four goals and a clean sheet against the LA Galaxy, Portland climbed above the playoff line in MLS’s Western Conference and started to hint at their potential. Could this team challenge for a home game in the playoffs? Maybe second place wasn’t out of reach?
Only one MLS game has passed since then, so the picture has only changed so much. But the Timbers are now below the playoff line. The feeling of dominance they won a two weeks ago has given way to an element of doubt. If the true Timbers are closer to their Galaxy selves than the team was saw in Minnesota, a reminder is in order.
These ebbs happen in seasons – the Timbers had that memorable, 0-3-0 stretch against Vancouver, D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City in 2018 – but that doesn’t mean these swoons shouldn’t be taken seriously. As was the case last year, the Timbers need to take inventory of what’s gone wrong, address the issues, and make sure a downturn doesn’t become a prolonged run.
Back then, the team’s troubles began with a home loss to the Whitecaps. Now, Vancouver’s back at Providence Park. The Timbers rivals will either be part of the solution or, having beaten Portland once already this season, they’ll contribute to the problem.
The Cascadia Cup
Thanks to that May victory, Vancouver sits one point up on Portland in this year’s Cascadia Cup standings, yet of the two teams, it’s the Timbers that fully control their competition destiny.
Even with another victory over Portland, the Whitecaps will be at the whim of the Sounders, who could vault Vancouver and win on a tiebreaker should they defeat the Timbers on August 23. As for those Timbers, they’ll claim the trophy outright with at least four points over this year’s final two rounds.
(Strangely, the Timbers could also win the Cup if they draw both games, leaving each team with five points after four games. In the tiebreaker process, Vancouver would lose out by having fewer goals than the Timbers. Once the tiebreaker is down to two teams, Portland would have more points head-to-head against the Sounders.)
Given Portland’s last two Cup games are at Providence Park, there’s no reason to settle for four points. And with that margin for error built in – knowing they could draw once and still win this year’s competition – claiming this year’s Cascadia Cup should be more expectation than hope.
Who can go?
Beyond the Whitecaps themselves, Saturday’s biggest obstacle will be fatigue. It will be the third game in seven days for Portland, and while Wednesday’s match was also played on two days’ rest, the team’s latest turnaround included a late flight out of Minnesota and over 1,700 miles of travel.
Between Sunday and mid-week games in St. Paul, six players (Sebastián Blanco, Diego Chara, Steve Clark, Brian Fernandez, Larrrys Mabiala and Jorge Moreira) played 180 minutes. Two others (Jeremy Ebobisse, Diego Valeri) logged over 100, while three more (Julio Cascante, Zarek Valentin, Jorge Villafaña) played 90 minutes. Even if, speculatively, you draw a line through only the field players who hit that 180-minute mark, that’s still five changes to an 11-man lineup.
For most of the summer, the Timbers’ depth has been a virtue, with the emergence of options like Marvin Loría and Renzo Zambrano helping the team manage their mid-season congestion. Now, that depth many be asked to do more than just maintain the team’s course. Strong performances from players getting their first starts of the week may be needed to get Portland out of the loss column.