The Portland Timbers shouldn’t need any reminders of how dangerous Wednesday night’s opponent can be.
Although the last time they faced the LA Galaxy, the Timbers won 6-3, that game was in Carson, California. Tonight’s match will be at Providence Park (7pm PT, ESPN), where the Galaxy earned a surprise, 3-2 victory on Sept. 2. That result was perhaps the nadir of Portland’s post-MLS is Back Tournament slump, but it was still a reminder: On a game-to-game basis, MLS’s margins remain very small.
Some of that reality is being overshadowed by the Galaxy’s recent results. Since their victory at Providence Park, head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s team has two victories in 10 games. Over their last eight, LA is 1-7-0, with their lone victory a 1-0 triumph against Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Oct. 18. The team has given up 22 goals in that time and has fallen to last place in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference.
“[We are] just preparing for a very difficult match against a team that is coming needing points,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said on Tuesday, “a team that we know individually has very good players, that are coming here with a very difficult scenario.”
Galaxy attacker Carlos Pavón is one of the most talented attackers in MLS. The Timbers saw as much on Sept. 2, when his solo effort on the game’s second goal gave the Galaxy a lead they’d never relinquish. LA also has Sebastian Lletget, a U.S. international, in their midfield, as well as Mexican international Jonathan dos Santos, an FC Barcelona product who, when healthy, is one of the league’s elite central midfielders.
The context around the Galaxy says they’re a struggling team. That’s undeniably true. But it’s too much to equate struggling with bad; or, better yet, incapable. Any team with talents like Pavón, Lletget and dos Santos can’t be overlooked.
“[LA’s struggles] make them be more dangerous,” Savarese said. “We need to be at our top level. We need to be very sharp. We need to be mentally prepared ...”
So late in the season, those struggles have crafted an aura of desperation around LA. With four games left in their regular season, the Galaxy sit six points behind the San Jose Earthquakes – the last qualifier for the West’s playoffs, were the season to end today. Perhaps more significant, the Galaxy would have to out-perform four teams to rise high enough to make the Western Conference’s playoffs. To date, LA has out-performed none of those teams.
In contrast, Portland would qualify for their fourth straight postseason with a victory or a draw on Wednesday, though given the Timbers’ place in the standings, a return to the playoffs seems almost assured. With 32 points through 19 games, the Timbers sit third in the Western Conference, and between now and their season-ending game at LAFC on Nov. 8, six teams would have to pass Portland for the Timbers to miss the playoffs.
Of greater concern at the moment is how the Timbers have finished their last two matches. In games against LAFC and at Seattle Sounders FC, Portland carried 1-0 leads into added time in the second half before conceding equalizing goals. With wins in those games, the Timbers would be in first place in the West and already qualified for the playoffs. Instead, the team has an issue to address before the postseason’s arrival.
“The game against LAFC, we see one factor that should have been better, that we have analyzed and we have spoken to the players [about],” Savarese said. “We need to manage that final part a little bit better and make sure that we can close the match ...
“And against Seattle, specifically, it was a set piece. We need to be better on [corner kicks]. I don't think we have been as good as we can be on corners. We've been very good defending set pieces, meaning free kicks and other situations. But specifically on corners, defensively, we have conceded too many goals, and we can be better.”
Those missteps came against two of the most talented teams in the league. The Galaxy have their share of talents, too. But whereas the sting of slips against the LAFCs and Seattles of the world can be mitigated by those teams’ place in the standings, there’s no such excuse on Wednesday. Portland will not only be expected to solve their late-match problems; they’ll be expected to regain the traction they’ve lost in the race for the West’s top spot.