With Vancouver Whitecaps arriving, Portland Timbers eager for stretch run to the season

PORTLAND, Ore. – For every MLS team in the playoff race, the last three months of the season is obviously a very intense time.

For the Portland Timbers, that is especially true. Not only are they in the midst of a battle for their first-ever Western Conference playoff spot, but also are staring down the barrel of four Cascadia Cup matches starting with Saturday’s game against the Vancouver Whitecaps at JELD-WEN Field (8 pm PT, ROOT SPORTS, 750 The Game / La Pantera 940).

A lot will be decided over the next 90 days, to be sure. To begin with, the team's defense of the Cascadia Cup is on the line.

“I think it’s very important,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said after Friday’s training session at the stadium. “I think [the Cup] gives a bit of an extra incentive. It’s something that means a lot of our supporters, and it means a lot to us as well. … Obviously winning that last year was a big deal. This year we hope that’s not the only thing we win. We don’t want to be, at the end of the year, hanging our hat on just the Cascadia Cup.”

When Portland won last season’s supporter-created Cup, a derby among the league’s three Pacific Northwest sides, they did with the luxury of hosting two out of the three matches against both Vancouver and Seattle. This year, they’ll have to do it by going on the road in two out of three games in each series.

The Timbers have already tied both teams on the road. That makes Saturday’s game and the Oct. 13 home game against Seattle all the more important.

“We’re basically in a home-and-home [series with both teams],” Porter said. “So it’s important we take care of business here.”

As for the playoff race, Portland are tied with Colorado for second place, three points behind Real Salt Lake with a game in hand. It’s an exceptionally close race up and down the table, with the top five teams being separated by just five points and the top eight by 10.

And 12 of Portland’s last 13 MLS games are against Western Conference opponents.

“I’ve never been in a race that’s as tight as this one,” Timbers captain Will Johnson said fresh off his appearance in Wednesday’s All-Star Game. “It’s all about taking advantage of your opportunities. … Every game whether you win, lose or tie you’ve got to pick yourselves up, turn yourselves around very quickly. You can’t dwell on any one result.”

It’s all made for a very intense atmosphere around Timbers camp this week, especially when you throw in the fact that they’re coming off a 2-1 loss to San Jose last weekend. It was their second defeat in the month of July, which saw the high-flying Timbers score just three goals in four games.

“There’s going to be a bit more intensity,” Porter said. “And you can see that and feel it in the guys as well. They know we’ve got 13 games left, and it’s time to take it to another level. … The guys know this is the time of year you separate the good teams and things start to shake out.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.