PORTLAND, Ore. – The end is finally in sight. Four days from now, the Portland Timbers will complete their season-opening, five-game road trip when they face Orlando City SC (1pm PT, ESPN), and for the first time this season, the team will be able to look toward a game at home.
Throw in the team’s two trips to Arizona in preseason, and the Timbers will have taken 14 flights in 11 weeks, once the team returns from Orlando. They’ll have logged 27,897 miles, crossed time zones 12 times, and spent only 37 of 76 nights in their own homes.
“The good thing about it is the frequent flyer miles,” Timbers attacker Sebastián Blanco joked, while also noting the challenges of life on the road.
“It’s difficult,” he said, “because the travel is long and hard … But it’s also part of the job, and as professionals, we need to manage the challenge.”
The Timbers aren’t the first team to endure this obstacle. Toronto FC had longer road trips to begin the 2015 and 2016 seasons while construction was done at BMO Field. The Reds qualified for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2015 and made the MLS Cup final the following year.
Playing on the road is tougher than playing at home, but every team has to do it. At least 17 times a season, it turns out. Having road trips clustered over a long period of time adds new challenges, but for the Timbers, those challenges don’t equate to excuses.
“It’s a shock to the system, but we can’t use that as an excuse,” defender Zarek Valentin explained. “I hate when people use travel, and all that stuff [as an excuse] … I think that, no matter what, whether it’s the heat in Dallas, both teams had to deal with it. Both teams had a water break. Whether we’re going to New York or [other places], ultimately, we got used to it.”
The Timbers results speak to that. If continuous travel was truly debilitating, then Portland wouldn’t look stronger at the end of their road trip than they did at its start. But they do. The team’s performances over the last two weeks, at FC Dallas and the Chicago Fire, have been their best of the season. System shocks or not, the team has been able to overcome.
There is a way to talk about road fatigue without making it into an excuse, though. As the history of MLS has shown, it is more difficult to get results on the road. Impossible? Absolutely not, but within this prolonged road schedule the team’s had to endure – the five mini-road trips Portland’s had piled on top of each other – travel’s trials have been laid bare.
A subtle one has been the challenge of practice time. During weeks when teams travel, particularly when you’re crossing multiple time zones, they lose two days to flights. After those trips’ return leg, you also lose a day to recovery. Add in a game day, and coaches are left with only three days to prepare for each game.
Repeat that schedule over a five-week window, and you have a significant loss of training time, particularly important for a squad that has a new coaching staff and is dealing with heavy roster turnover.
“There are only two days that we can work tactically, in what we’re going to do, so it limits you when you travel so many times away from home,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “You have to prepare in a different way. It’s watching more videos, [on] the same day. It’s trying to go longer nights/"
It’s replacing what you’d play through on the training ground with something you have to think through on planes and in hotel rooms. You can’t just make up the lost training time by doing double sessions or practicing the same days you travel. Not when your flights cover multiple thousands of miles, sap hours off your clock, and (something that should have been listed first) you’re trying to preserve players for a 34-game season.
“Things get a lot easier when you get closer to the match,“ Savarese explained, “because usually, the work has to be done in two days. That definitely is something that we needed to adapt to during this period of traveling.”
That adaptation has coincided with Portland’s need to make tactical changes. Savarese had a bye week between the team’s second and third games, within which he installed a new formation, the team’s current 4-3-2-1. The tweaks to that approach, however, have had to come in the small, discreet windows Portland’s travel schedule has allowed.
“We felt, at the beginning, what we wanted to achieve something with the first two matches,” Savarese recalled, “and then we felt we had to change. And I would say [making tactical changes] was the only thing that we had to analyze through these trips. Everything else [about the road schedule] is pretty much what we expected, that it was going to be tough.”
The more obvious disruption happens to each players’ routines. People just don’t have their lives together when they’re away from home so often. Perhaps traveling salespeople do, but professional soccer players, for as much as they travel, don’t plan on being away from home so often.
“Little things like that take a bigger toll,” Valentin said. “Traveling is tough, but ultimately you put your legs up, you get a massage … I think it’s just that comfort factor, of being around an environment [players] can feel comfortable. Where they’re going home, they’re driving their own car, they can go get a haircut. People have certain routines they like to do, and that provides them a level of comfort.”
The irregular sleep is another problem. Traveling east from Portland means early flights, something that gets players out of bed earlier than usual, as well as losing hours to time differences. Once they’re on the ground, players have to adjust to life on a different clock.
“When we play Dallas at three [local time], I think it was,” Valentin remembered, “we’re waking up for a nine o’clock breakfast, which is seven a.m. our time. Then kickoff’s around one, so it’s a pretty early day.”
Early, but certainly not something the team can’t overcome. They did so on that day in Dallas, earning a point in Frisco, and they did the same seven days later in Chicago.
No doubt, life on the road is manageable, but it also presents a series of obstacles. Disadvantages, if you will. When the Timbers play 17 of their last 29 at home, those ills will swing the other way, but for now, Savarese is happy with how his squad met their challenge:
“I’ve been very proud of the way the guys have responded to it. The effort last game, the one before, under very different conditions … two completely different sets of weather, [traveling across] time zones. But the guys have done really well to adapt, to travel well, to take care of their bodies, and I’m very content with the discipline that everybody has shown.”