BEAVERTON, Ore. -- It didn’t take long for the comparisons to make it to the Timbers’ Training Facility. Four days, in fact.
Before the 2019 season, the Portland Timbers had a truncated offseason, the reverse reward for an MLS Cup final run that took the team’s 2018 campaign into December. This offseason, though, Portland’s reverse reward saw their season end almost two months earlier, on October 19 at Real Salt Lake. With this year’s season opener slated for March 1, Portland was handed five-and-a-half months between competitive games.
Too short. Then too long. At some point, it would be nice to be Goldilocks.
“There’s no doubt that when you make an MLS Cup run, you’re a little bit tired, mentally,” goalkeeper Steve Clark said, on Thursday. “We had the [misfortunate] of going out earlier last year, but we’re excited. We’re hungry.”
It’s a theme that seems to be shared throughout the Timbers’ team. Head coach Giovanni Savarese alluded to that hunger during his initial remarks at Portland’s Wednesday Media day, with attacker Sebastián Blanco arguably the most direct of the Timbers’ notables. “We’re going to go for something more than just making it to the playoffs,” he explained, with veteran defender Larrys Mabiala echoing his teammates view a day later.
“From last season, we were not satisfied with the way the season ended,” he explained, “especially after all the ups and downs we’d been through.”
Portland began the 2019 campaign 0-5-1 before concluding their opening-season, 12-game road trip with 13 points in six games. By season’s end, though, the Timbers were unable to take advantage of a home-heavy closing schedule, eventually finishing sixth in the Western Conference and exiting the playoffs in the first round.
“We were still able to go through to the playoffs,” Mabiala reminds, “Then, when the playoffs started, we weren’t ourselves in the first half of the game. Since we have this continuity and a lot of talent, more experience, too, we should use this for this season to be able to do much better than last year, which was already good to go to the playoffs. But we want to go all the way to the end.”
That continuity sees, as of now, 21 players from last season’s first team currently on the team’s roster. As preseason progresses, that could change, but the winter’s lack of turnover comes with a clear subtext. Though names like Yimmi Chara and Dario Zuparic have been added – while Savarese and general manager Gavin Wilkinson said, on Wednesday, that two more signings could come – the vast majority of the 2019 team has returned for 2020.
“Everyone on the team, we’re hitting the ground running, as far as that goes,” Clark explained, when asked about the team’s continuity. “But [there are] some new pieces, so we’re happy to have everybody … it’s been great.”
Clark praised the high intensity of the first week’s sessions, lauding the team as “aggressive,” while saying there is “a lot of fight in the group.” For his part, Mabiala focused on the basics, a focus that takes on a different context after such a long time off.
“It’s very difficult, especially after two months of the offseason ...,” Mabiala said, about the workload players will endure while regaining their fitness. “After one month, it’s already very difficult, but two months, if you don’t work a little bit in the offseason, you lose everything. You’re just coming back in, trying to build some energy up … You have to be ready to absorb what we are about to do right now.”
That “about to do” includes two training sessions on Thursday before, on Friday, the team’s first offday of the preseason. Saturday and Sunday will see the Timbers back in training in Beaverton before a Monday flight to Costa Rica, where the group will spend two weeks ahead of a Rose City return for the Timbers’ preseason tournament (Feb. 16, 19 and 22, TICKETS).