planearrival

BEAVERTON, Ore. – How to handle games at altitude had been a point of debate around the sports world for some time. More and more, though, that debate has swayed in one direction.

Whereas at one time teams tried to get to high elevations as early as possible to give players’ bodies time to adjust, now teams are employing more of a drop-in method, hoping to get in and out of altitude before the impact of low oxygen is felt. To that end, the Portland Timbers left for Thursday afternoon’s Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinal match at the Colorado Rapids (1:30pm PT, FOX) after practicing Beaverton, Oregon, on Wednesday. They could be on the ground in the Denver area for less than 24 hours.

“They’re a difficult team,” Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark said. “Well coached. A cohesive unit … We’re just preparing, but we know what to expect from a playoff atmosphere. We’re getting closer to achieving our goal, to get to an MLS Cup. It’s one more step.”

For the Timbers, being on the right side of the altitude debate took on extra importance this week. Not only are the stakes around Thursday’s game in Denver’s suburbs more important than usual, but the time to recovery time is shorter. The Timbers opened their 2021 Major League Soccer playoff journey on Sunday with a 3-1 win over Minnesota United at home. With only three days to prepare, they take on the Western Conference’s first-place finishers in Thursday’s conference semifinal.

“Hopefully we get there as fresh as possible,” Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese said in his pregame media conference. “It’s not easy to bounce back in such a short period of time, but the conditions are what have in front of us.

“We have to manage it very well. Right now, on everybody’s mind here is that we’re working very hard so that everybody can arrive at the match as fresh as possible.”

Portland’s road to recovery has been a deliberate one, putting players’ physical preparation first. At this point of the season, that’s usually the case. If your team doesn’t have its game model and principles in place by now, you’re probably not alive in the playoffs. So instead of normal, mid-season training weeks, the postseason sees much of the tactical adjustments take place via film rooms and quick on-field walkthroughs. Physical readiness becomes a premium.

“Right now, recovery,” team captain Diego Chara answered on Monday, when asked about priorities over the teams’ three days between games. “We have a couple of guys that were a little bit tired at the end of the game, and now, they’ll had two, three days to recover …”

To that end, Portland players who saw significant minutes on Sunday against Minnesota had light weeks. They built slowly from recovery to activity, then preservation over their time between matches. The rest of the team were on a different path, but the goal remained the same: Make sure everybody is in the best condition possible for Colorado, so they can carry over momentum from Minnesota.

“Our confidence right now is high,” Chara said. “I think everyone is trying to show their best performance. I think we did last game. Now we have a great opportunity against Colorado and maybe make it (to the conference final).”

Adding to Portland’s recovery needs is the nature of the game against Minnesota. Star attacker Sebastián Blanco picked up a late first-half injury that he described as something associated with his rib cage. Savarese confirmed on Tuesday that he’ll be ready for Colorado. Chara was on the wrong end of a nasty challenge in the second half, while the bulk of the team experienced the reality of a desperate team trying to keep their season alive. You’re supposed to be banged up after those types of scenarios.

That’s where the benefits of finishing first will come into play for Colorado. Not only is their first playoff game of the tournament at home with the benefits of altitude, but when Thursday’s match starts, they will have had 17 days’ rest. For some, that will be too many days, with the argument being that teams lose rhythm with so much time off. Compared to the Timbers’ situation, though, you see the benefits. Colorado will be at home, rested, and in further opposition to the Timbers, carrying no yellow cards going into the conference semifinals.

Blanco picked up a yellow on Sunday. So did center back Larrys Mabiala. Those are both concerns for Thursday’s game. One more caution, and either could miss the conference final, after which the yellow-card slate will be wiped clean. Both need to get through their next 90 (or 120) minutes without being booked.

The biggest priority, though, is advancing. That’s where the recovery comes back into focus. If the Timbers managed their week correctly, they’ll have fresh bodies to tackle both the opponent and the altitude. If not, the challenge will be steeper when the team hopes to derail Colorado.

“It’s going to be a hard game against Colorado,” Clark said, “but I think everyone in the team is ready to do it.