We have been spoiled, Portland soccer fans; at least, when it comes to our Major League Soccer team, the soccer life has been good.
One month of nothing but weekend home games? Every weekend, Providence Park, not having to worry about mid-week games or early-evening starts. That’s the life we want.
Remember that this evening, when mid-week soccer returns. With their first visit to D.C. United’s Audi Field, the Portland Timbers are back on the road, looking to put their Saturday disappointment behind them (5pm PT, ROOT SPORTS). Thus starts a two-game, four-day stretch that thrusts them back into the reality of MLS.
These trips – week-long, multi-stop, packing 7,000 miles on your bones – are why MLS has become a notoriously tough league to manage. Unlike most leagues, there are almost no cross-city bus trips for a weekend match. Even derbies, most of them, require some air travel. This is a league that defies routine, tests patience and resiliency and, in the process, produces some crazy results.
For some, a Timbers loss to D.C. United would qualify as crazy result, but as we detailed in Know Your Opponent, there may be more to Ben Olsen’s squad than meets the standings-focused eye. And, in their latest excursion away from home, Portland is sure to be handed some new challenges.
Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three areas of focus for this week’s first challenge:
1. Armenteros’ health
It was one of the first questions Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese was asked on Tuesday, during his brief teleconference with the Portland press – a question he had to know was coming. Samuel Armenteros, the only established striker on the Timbers’ first-team roster right now, had to leave Saturday’s game with an apparent knee injury. If he isn’t ready to face D.C. United, what will the team do?
Thankfully, that question might be put off for another day, with Savarese confirming that Armenteros is healthy enough to be in contention for D.C. United. With two road games in four days, depth at forward is still going to be a concern, but if Armenteros is healthy enough to resume his place in Portland’s starting XI, many fans’ worst fears will be assuaged; at least, for a little while.
August, however, was bound to tempt that fear, at some point. Over the next 16 days, the Timbers will play five times, with three games on turf and another transcontinental flight awaiting before the calendar turns to September. Among the many players whose miles may need to be monitored, Armenteros may be near the top.
If the Timbers don’t need a stand-in at forward against United, they’ll likely need one before this 16-day stretch is done.
2. Forward depth
And that, it’s clear, is part of fans’ worst fears. There are many reasons why the Fanendo Adi trade needed to happen now, but the reality of its tradeoffs can be seen in the team’s current roster, one which has a hole in its depth chart.
Armenteros has established himself as a first-choice striker, for now, but behind him, there is an array of players who are still trying to emerge into that second striker’s spot. Dairon Asprilla has been getting many of those minutes for now, but Jeremy Ebobisse is on this road trip with the team and could yet play his way into his first meaningful MLS minutes of the season. Foster Langsdorf is T2’s leading scorer (and tied for fourth in the USL), while Argentine arrivals Lucas Melano and Tomás Cocechny will also be in the mix for Adi’s vacated minutes.
Diego Valeri and Sebastián Blanco are also part of this picture, and it’s possible Andy Polo could eventually move higher up the field, where he saw more time in the preseason. For now, though, the biggest question in the Timbers’ squad is what happens at forward beyond Armenteros.
Wednesday is just the latest chance to answer that question. Or let it linger. Regardless, the Timbers have a challenge in replacing their departed star.
3. Life on the road
After a month at Providence Park, Portland resumed a normal MLS team’s life on Monday: boarding a plane; losing a training day; embracing life on the road. Between D.C. and Saturday's match at Sporting Kansas City, the team will be away from home for the first time since spending nearly a week in Los Angeles surrounding last month’s league and U.S. Open Cup play. With Monday’s trip cross-country, the Timbers left the Pacific time zone for the first time since visiting Atlanta on June 24.
The biggest issue, here, is the training time lost. The days immediately before a game are typically devoted to tactical work, but in losing Monday to travel, the Timbers will have less time to prepare for D.C. on the field. Video can take care of some of that, but suffice to say, this is one of the reasons why MLS life is more difficult on the road.
In that way, though, this week will be a good test of the Timbers’ foundations. Can’t do much tactical work? The strength of the team’s core principles might have to win out. Need to rotate players amid an increased workload? Well, squad depth has become one of this organization’s primary goals. If that depth, as long as the team’s core way of playing, can’t withstand this week’s challenge, better Savarese and general manager Gavin Wilkinson know that now, in mid-August, then have that exposed at the end of the season.
This week will be tough, as will the rest of August, but as was the feeling before Portland’s draw in Atlanta, there comes a time when a team needs to test itself. Now is as good a time as every to be taking on these challenges.