The biggest challenge Major League Soccer’s teams have faced at the start of their recent Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League campaigns has been timing. Under the tournament, MLS teams enter the competition in the knockout round, but that knockout round begins during MLS’s preseason – before its teams have games under their belts. What’s more, teams usually have to undertake accelerated training camps, convening in January for February matchups against teams in the middle of their seasons.
This year, thanks to a preseason camp that convened in late February, one of those burdens has been alleviated. The Portland Timbers have had nearly seven weeks to prepare for their Tuesday, 3 p.m. Pacific kickoff in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, against CD Marathón. The other issue, though, remains. Though the Timbers have played a number of exhibition games over the last two weeks, the team will go into their first Champions League match with a 0-0-0 record this season. Minute one in Honduras will be minute one in 2021.
“Finally, we’ve come to the moment we’ve been waiting for …,” offered Timbers’ head coach Giovanni Savarese as the opening words of his pre-departure press conference. “It’s always difficult when we don’t have the chance to compete in many [preceding] matches, but the excitement of the group, you can sense it.”
As Portland’s preseason closes, that lack of games has been overshadowed by another two-fold reality. On one hand, the Timbers have been hungry to get back to an actual game, with the preseason’s tactical, physical and mental build leaving players eager for Tuesday’s kickoff. That the kickoff is in Concacaf Champions League means something, too. Even more than in Portland’s previous CCL appearances, in 2014 and 2016, the current roster feels primed to offer a true challenge.
“We have played very good friendly games,” Valeri said, summarizing the team’s preseason. “The feeling every training, it’s been amazing in the team, and we’ve improved a lot, every game that we’ve played. Now, it’s the real stuff.”
Valeri’s been involved in both of Portland’s prior CCL seasons. So has Diego Chara. Beyond those two cornerstones, few Timbers remain from the campaigns that saw Portland fail to advance beyond the group stage. Comparisons between then and now start with the record books and largely end with the personnel.
For the Diegos, though, memories of 2014 and 2016 are the context for 2021. Both players have accumulated so much time in Portland, opportunities like Champions League take on a special meaning. Chara came to the team in 2011 and, on Tuesday, begins his 11th season with the Timbers. Valeri has been here nearly as long, nine seasons, and has established a connection with Portland that runs just as strong.
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“It means a lot …,” Valeri said, when asked what playing in Champions League means to him. “It’s an international cup. Different types of games. Different stadiums. Different environments. It’s always special.
“You never know if you’re going to play in it again, so you have to take it as if it’s the last one. That makes it special.”
When the Diegos were in Champions League before, they had good talent around them. Players like Darlington Nagbe, Liam Ridgewell and Fanendo Adi were league standouts during their time in Portland. But as Major League Soccer has grown, so has the amount of talent on the Timbers’ roster. In terms of that talent, this is likely the best team Portland’s brought to this tournament.
The clearest evidence of that is in the team’s attack, where Portland finished second in MLS in goals scored last season despite losing two Designated Players (Sebastián Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda) to season-ending injuries. Another important part of the attack, fullback Jorge Moreira, was lost after the season’s first game, while another, forward Jeremy Ebobisse, suffered a serious injury at season’s end. Despite all those challenges, Portland still had a number of standout attacking talents come the postseason, with Valeri’s number 10 role complemented by Felipe Mora up top, Yimmi Chara out wide, and Eryk Williamson’s arrivals from his deeper midfield role.
The defense, too, is as well equipped as it’s been during Portland’s MLS era, even though the team is coming off a year where allowing late goals was a season-ending flaw. But central defenders Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zuparic showed how commanding they can be at the MLS Is Back Tournament last summer. Beside them, new fullbacks have been brought in, with Claudio Bravo and Josecarlos Van Rankin as talent a duo as Timbers’ defense has had at its wide positions.
That theory of the Timbers’ defense needs to make its way to the field, but if it does, Portland’s high CCL hopes will be justified. They’ll be back in a position where, over a given 90 minutes, they can play at any MLS team’s level.
“I can say to you right now that we want to be MLS Cup champions,” Savarese said last week, when ask about his team’s potential. “We want to be CCL champions and represent this country in the [Club] World Cup in December, but the reality is that we need to be as good as we can be in this first match …
“We have a plan, and we will plan accordingly for each match, to hope we can be as competitive. Toward the end, we’ll see what we have done. Hopefully, it’s going to be very good this year, for us.
There may be another reason why the 2021 preseason has felt so long. The last time this group played a competitive game, they were left heartbroken, and largely by their own mistakes. Last November, FC Dallas departed Providence Park victorious after a penalty-kick shootout that, from the Timbers’ point of view, should have never happened. Portland’s chance at redemption has required a waiting period of four-and-a-half months.
Ready or not, that chance is here, though there a number of reasons to think the Timbers will be ready. There are the memories carried forward by the Diegos, the time the team’s had to prepare, but perhaps more importantly, there’s the talent that left Portland’s players itching to get back on the field.