For the last month, the Portland Timbers have avoided talking about their place in the standings, even after a September surge left them battling for the top spot in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference.
“We want to be there [rather] than the other end of the table, but there’s a long way to go,” Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark said on Sept. 23, in the wake of his team’s 1-0 victory at Providence Park over Seattle Sounders FC. “We have our schedule now, we can see the end and again, we need to be mindful and one game at a time and we need another performance like this [in the next game].”
This week, that’s changed. On Thursday night, the Timbers will be in Seattle for one of the more meaningful regular-season rivalry matches they’ve played against the Sounders (7:30pm PT, FS1). With 31 points in 17 games, Seattle is on top of the West. With 31 points in 18 games, the Timbers are even on points, albeit with fewer games to play before the playoffs.
It makes talk of the conference’s top spot unavoidable. On Tuesday, neither head coach Giovanni Savarese nor team talisman Diego Chara shied away from the obvious.
“Especially this game, at this moment, it means so much,” Savarese admitted, “because we're battling at the top of the table. This is going to be even a bigger match, and we are preparing accordingly. But every game that we play against Seattle is a big game.”
“I think it is going to be a hard game, a tough game,” Chara said. “They are first, we are second, and we are trying to get the [top] place in the playoffs. I think it is going to be an attractive match on Thursday, and I think we are ready for that.”
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Come Thursday night, Portland will have completed a series of litmus tests against Western Conference benchmarks – the teams that have become barometers over the past few seasons. Last Wednesday at Real Salt Lake – a team that eliminated the Timbers from last year’s postseason – Portland played a poor first half and lost, 2-1. On Sunday against the reigning Supporters’ Shield holders, Los Angeles FC, Portland gave up an equalizing goal in second-half added time to draw, 1-1. Neither performance was that bad, but on the heels of a five-game winning streak, the results blunted the team’s momentum.
As always, Seattle is a special kind of test: partly because of regional animus, and a history between the teams that stretches back over 40 years; partly because, over the last few seasons, the teams have been so close to each other in the standings, and ultimately been the West’s representatives at MLS Cup.
It’s been over five years since a team other than Portland or Seattle faced the Eastern Conference champion in MLS’ championship game, meaning that, during that time, the better of the two rivals has typically been the team most likely to survive the West’s playoff gauntlet. Seattle’s done so three times; Portland’s done so twice. The Timbers claimed the region’s first Cup in 2015; the Sounders have followed with two of their own.
In terms of recent meetings, the results have begun to lean Portland’s way during the Savarese era. Since his hire by the Timbers before the 2018 season, Portland is 7-4-0 against the Sounders, including wins in the teams’ last two meetings and a triumph in the team’s two-legged, head-to-head meeting in the 2018 postseason.
“As soon as we step on the field, we know that we are playing Seattle,” Savarese said, “and we want to beat them. We want to make our fans can be proud, wherever they are watching the match …
“These matches are always difficult. They have been playing well. They're always very competitive. We always try to be very competitive against them.”
One team hoping for an equal level of competitiveness will be Sporting Kansas City, who sit one point behind Seattle and Portland in the Western Conference standings. With a draw on Thursday at CenturyLink Field, Sporting’s position improves in what has become a three-team race for the West’s top seed. In turn, a win for either Cascadia club would allow that team to start focusing on home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
Those are the underlying stakes on Thursday. In any rivalry match, the occasion carries its own weight, but in terms of each team’s 2020 goals, a win would be a major step to ensuring the road to MLS Cup would not be a road at all. Nights at home, shorts drives to the stadium, and no travel would define a playoff run, should a win on Thursday become a next step to the West’s top spot.