PORTLAND, Ore. – For the second time in four weeks, the Portland Timbers are facing a trap game, only this time, there’s even more at stake. When the team takes the field Saturday in Commerce City, Colorado, against the Rapids (6:00pm PT, FOX 12 Plus (KPDX)), they’ll do so with a five-game winning streak, third place in the Western Conference standings, and the momentum from a 2-1, Saturday win over one of the league’s toughest opponents in LAFC.
It’s a different situation than the team faced on May 5, when the Timbers carried two straight wins into San Jose. Back then, the Earthquakes were next-to-last in the 12-team Western Conference, but none of their five defeats had been by more than one goal. That trend continued at Avaya Stadium, where a late Diego Valeri strike helped Portland escape with a 1-0 win. If it wasn’t for some key saves from Jeff Attinella, the Timbers’ winning streak would have ended at two, with the Earthquakes having proved less of a pushover than some had hoped.
The same could prove true of the Rapids, whose 2-6-2 record is thanks in part to their five winless games on the road. A home, at altitude, with a style that often frustrates opponents, Colorado is 2-2-1.
“It’s a very complicated team to play against,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said during his Tuesday press conference, having already talked about the team’s 3-5-2 formation. “We need to be smart. [The win against Los Angeles FC] already happened (on Saturday). It’s part of the past. Now, it’s a new match.”
It’s the same philosophy Savarese espoused before San Jose, even though his team had just come off a breakthrough, 3-0 home win against New York City FC. Before that trip, the Timbers had traditionally struggled in the South Bay, often leaving the Bay Area empty-handed. Though Portland eventually took three points from this recent trip, the bulk of that match was played on even footing. It could have easily ended in a scoreless draw.
Saturday’s trip to Colorado presents many of the same obstacles. The Rapids are struggling, yet they have played well at home. They’ll be desperate to turn their fortunes after this weekend’s 4-0 loss at NYCFC. And, they play where Portland’s traditionally struggled, having limited the Timbers to one victory at Dicks’ Sporting Goods Park since 2011.
“If we’re mentally not prepared, this is going to be a tough game,” Savarese explained. “The guys should understand that. There’s no team in this league that you can take for granted. There’s no game that’s going to be easy … if we think that we are better than what we are, then we we’ll fail from the beginning.”
The idea of every game being a tough one has become a Major League Soccer cliché, but there’s a reason why clichés exist. Often, they are so true, repeated so often, they become trite to the ear. But just because people are tired of hearing about the league’s parity doesn’t mean that parity isn’t real.
“The league is literally built so that anyone can beat anybody,” Timbers defender Zarek Valentin said after training this week. “That’s the whole parity concept that the league wants. Obviously, anyone can [win].”
“I have never gone into a game going ‘yeah, yeah, we’ll get three points in this one.’ No chance,” he continued. “I always believe that the second you feel comfortable and you feel complacent is when you’re going to get beat, and I don’t like that … We might have won a few games in a row, going to play a team that’s not high in the standings, but the second we think we’re going to get out of there with a win is when we’re going to get smacked up upside our face and put down on the mat.”
Hence, the trap game. We explored that idea in depth before, in the run up to San Jose, but just three weeks later, the concept is back, potentially with a vengeance. More than the two-game streak the Timbers carried into Avaya, more than bottom-half-of-the-conference place Portland had when it ventured south, the team now has real momentum. It has a potential that it doesn’t want derailed.
Having reestablished itself in the conversation with other MLS contenders, Portland’s context completely changes if its tripped up by Colorado.
“We hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Valentin said. “We’re starting to get the positive criticism to hold players to that standard, and if it’s not good enough in training, we’re going to call people out …
“We know if we attack [the danger of overlooking Colorado] in the best mindset possible, we could see, potentially, being in a place where we can go and get a win [in Colorado] for the first time in three or four years with us."