The Portland Timbers’ have only lost once since September 13: a 2-1, October 14 defeat at Real Salt Lake that came after short rest and travel to altitude. Since then, Portland has gone 6-1-3, moving into the race for first in the Western Conference while securing the Timbers’ fourth-straight playoff appearance.
In the process, Portland has started collecting one of Major League Soccer’s most valuable possessions: late-season momentum.
“In MLS, it's all about momentum and making sure that you climb with that momentum, climb to the top of that momentum, at the right time ...,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said on Friday, ahead of his team’s Sunday game against Vancouver Whitecaps FC (7pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)). “Momentum is all at this time in MLS and in this period. We have seen on and off in the past that the teams that arrive with the best momentum to the playoffs are the ones that do the best.”
Timbers fans know this as much as anyone. In 2015, Portland won four of its last five regular-season games to seed its first MLS Cup run, with the Timbers eventually claiming their first league title. Three years later, Portland used a late 3-0-1 stretch to secure a postseason berth and build toward another playoff run to the final, and while 2018’s momentum didn’t deliver a second title, it did reinforce Savarese’s axiom: Momentum is everything at this point of the season.
Well, not at this point of the season, precisely. The Timbers still have three regular-season games to play – matches which not only give them a chance to pass Seattle Sounders FC and Sporting Kansas City at the top of the Western Conference but also give them opportunities to slip.
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There’s a game against Vancouver before the playoffs. Three days after that, the Colorado Rapids will be at Providence Park, and four days after that, Portland will close its season at Los Angeles FC. Together, the three games form a gauntlet of escalating competition and tight turnarounds. It may be difficult to preserve momentum.
“It is very important for us to try to finish very strong [in] these three matches, looking one game at a time, and focus entirely on that ...,” Savarese explained. “Playing in the playoffs is three games away from now. We want to first achieve the goal to get as high as possible [in the standings] in the hope that we can play more games at home.”
A top-four finish in the Western Conference ensures you get at least one playoff game at home. Finish in the top two, and you’ll play at home should you make the conference semifinals. First in the conference, and you don’t step on a plane until MLS Cup.
“You would hope to continue to work and stay humble, and follow our path to stay where we have been,” Savarese said. “Hopefully we can maintain this rhythm.”
For Timbers midfielder Eryk Williamson, there’s another dimension to the team’s momentum, one that harkens back to the high point of the team’s season, so far.
“We've had some time since [the MLS is Back Tournament] to get back in the rhythm that we did in Orlando,” he explained. “You can see it in games like this last game [against the LA Galaxy], where we're controlling possession, we're controlling the game at home, which was a big concern when we came back from Orlando. It's good that we're building this and doing it the right way before the playoffs.”
The next three games will provide a final litmus test: two matches the Timbers will be expected to win, and a third where they’ll likely be underdogs come kickoff. If Portland can navigate those obstacles, they’ll reach the postseason with one of MLS’s most-coveted commodities. They’ll have preserved their momentum.