PORTLAND, Ore. – When the Portland Timbers made offseason moves to add players like Gastón Fernández and Norberto Paparatto, head coach Caleb Porter pointed to the very scenario that their maiden voyage in CONCACAF Champions League has created this week.
The Timbers face a load of important games in the season’s final month, and they’ve got the players to deal with them.
That showed in their 4-2 victory Tuesday night over CD Olimpia in their first ever CCL home game. Portland’s squad rotation for the game against the Honduran champions, which is sandwiched by two league games and then another CCL game next week, was in no way a second-choice side.
Portland started two of their top-three leading scorers in Maximiliano Urruti (nine MLS goals) and Fernandez (seven MLS goals) and captain and midfielder Will Johnson. The backline of Paparatto, Rauwshan McKenzie, Danny O’Rourke and Michael Harrington had a combined 45 starts among them this season.
In all, the Timbers starters had a combined 165 appearances this year.
“It’s really important, it’s an honor,” Porter said when asked where CCL group play ranks in terms of importance. “There are a lot of teams that have never been in CONCACAF Champions League. There are a lot of players who have never played in these games. It’s a privilege to earn the right to be here.”
The lineup and depth paid off as Urruti bagged a brace, Johnson and McKenzie each scored a goal and Porter was able to pepper in attack-minded substitutes such as Rodney Wallace, Darlington Nagbe and Designated Player Fanendo Adi to tire out Olimpia after the two teams went into the locker room tied at 2-2 at halftime. It was a game that Porter had targeted as crucial to the Timbers' chances of advancing out of group play.
Portland and Olimpia are tied atop the group with two wins apiece, but Portland face a favorable matchup Sept. 23 against minnows Alpha United before their return tie on Oct. 21 against Olimpia in Honduras.
And, Porter said, his team will have fresh legs for Saturday’s important Western Conference showdown at home against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
“This put us in a really good spot,” Porter said. “We knew this was big. Three points, first of all, was crucial, but we also gave ourselves a little bit of a margin on goal differential, which is always positive. … I thought we played really well, the entire match, on both sides of the ball.”
Despite the even score at halftime, Portland did largely control the match. Olimpia’s two goals came on two set pieces and few chances were created during the run of play. Urruti said the deep squad only adds to the players’ desire to do well with their chances.
“Players always want to play, but we know the coach has to select players,” Urruti said. “So whether it’s as a starter or coming off the bench you always have to know how to contribute and want to play.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.