FRISCO, Tex. — Sunday’s mood around the Portland Timbers wasn’t normal, but there was no scenario where it would have been. The third day of their six-day road trip was always going to be about transition. Either they would win on Saturday in Dallas and ride momentum into their Wednesday match against Club América, or they’d drop points and have to rebound. Either way, it wasn’t going to be your typical day after. The team as shifting its focus to Mexico City and Concacaf Champions League. It was always going to feel different.
It’s not every week that a team has an occasion like Wednesday’s. The Champions League quarterfinals. A do-or-die match. Estadio Azteca, the region’s most famous venue. These types of opportunities tend to overshadow games like Dallas, the third of Portland’s 34-game regular season, and it’s why the Timbers approached Saturday’s game the way they did. Priorities made it easier to move on from the 4-1 loss.
“Obviously, it's not the way you want to face this coming game,” Portland captain Diego Valeri said, when asked about transition from the team’s Saturday result, “but it's part of soccer to have a [chance at redemption] quickly. The best way to go to the [América] game is to think about how you are going to perform, how you are going to play, and start imagining how the game is going to be.”
This trip was always going to be about ramping up for América. Against Dallas, not only were the Timbers limiting the minutes of players who will feature prominently against América, but they were also constrained by injuries. Five players were completely unavailable against FCD, while two others were listed as “questionable.” Roughly 25 percent of the team’s roster was carrying some level of injury into the match at Toyota Stadium.
Still, in that match’s wake, there were two prominent but opposing conclusions, neither of which we exactly right. Seeing the result as catastrophic was too strong, just as seeing it as dismissible was too forgiving. The team knew managing the four-game, 12-day stretch that began on April 28 would be difficult, but they also expect a certain standard from all of the players on their roster. The way goals were conceded over Saturday’s first half didn’t reflect the level of the players as much as they reflected breakdowns – things players on the field were capable of preventing. Going forward, the Timbers will need to address what went wrong.
As Sunday faded, so did Portland's worries about their Saturday result. Like goalkeeper Jeff Attinella said, “you give yourself 24 hours” to reflect on the performance. After that, you move on. Within the Timbers, there may have been no better evidence than the team’s traditional tunnels. On Sunday, the ritual was muted, with the lines of teammates and staff that honored Zac McGraw’s professional debut, Hunter Sulte’s first MLS appearance, and Miles Joseph’s birthday exercise a small level of unspoken restraint. There will still smiles, and laughs, and after the ritual was done, a layer of ice that'd stay with the group had thawed. But the playful hitting on a person’s back as they ran between lines was closer to friendly slaps than something people typically hope to dodge.
Come Monday, teammates were warning the latest birthday boy, defender Dario Zuparic, before his tunnel start. One gleeful found a place at the end of the line, planning to make his presence felt. The playfulness was back. The banter was, too. The Timbers were their normal selves, ready for their afternoon flight south. By the time the team touched down in Mexico, the opportunity of América — the point of the entire trip — had fully taken hold.
“It's more than us being excited to be in [Champions League],” Attinella explained. “We're going down there to win it. We want to advance. We want to advance in Champions League. That's the goal. We have a good core group of guys that are on the same page and have that same mentality.”