Giovanni Savarese, Mike Petke, Timbers @ RSL, 10.6.18
(USA Today Sports Images)

Know Your Opponent | "Second leg" against RSL brings Timbers' basics back into focus

PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese’s philosophy on training sessions was evident from his first practices in Arizona, during the team’s preseason, as players and those around the squad remarked on the days’ uptick in intensity and structure.

“It’s tiring … I can feel it now,” midfielder Diego Valeri said, then, while also acknowledging the change was, “good. It’s part of the season.”

This week, Savarese’s philosophy on training was reiterated in an unexpected way: in his weekly press conference; when asked about the importance of momentum at the end of a Major League Soccer season. “Momentum is everything,” he said, when asked about the potential in his team’s remaining games, even if he immediately shifted focus away from end-of-week benchmarks to the team’s day-to-day goals.

“Momentum gets tested every practice, not every game, only,” he said. “It’s every day that you have to make sure that you push the guys; that the guys are ready to practice well, to prepare themselves for the weekend.

“As I mentioned prior to the game against Real Salt Lake” – the 4-1, Oct. 4 victory that has the Timbers on the brink of their first back-to-back postseason appearances in franchise history – “it was a very good week of practice. The guys did fantastic. Now we have to maintain that consistency.”

Consistency is one theme we’ve dwelt on, this week, at, but it’s only one of many factors influencing Sunday’s game at Providence Park, the second of a unique home-and-home against RSL (2pm PT, ROOT SPORTS). With a bye week between, the series doesn’t carry the same feel as, say, a quick turnaround in most playoff situations, and for one team, it’s not a home-and-home at all. On Thursday night, Real Salt Lake faces the New England Revolution in Sandy, Utah, not only making the series a twice-in-three stretch for them but also meaning that, should RSL drop points, the Timbers will have clinched a playoff spot before Sunday’s kickoff.

“They have to concentrate on New England,” Savarese said. “They cannot concentrate on us, yet. And also, we have to watch this game to see how they do, what happens, and start planning.”

That planning – and the late stage of it, with RSL’s latest game coming only three days before kicking off in Portland – is only one of the unique parts of this week, as is the Timbers facing the same opponent over the span of 15 days. That said opponent will feature a coach, Mike Petke, Savarese is so familiar with ups the ante. The two were teammates with the New York-New Jersey MetroStars at the inception of what is now the New York Red Bulls’ franchise. They both were part of that franchise after their playing careers: Savarese as the team’s Sporting Director, in charge of the club’s youth programs; Petke as the team’s head coach.

The relationship makes it tempting to see the coaching chess match in terms of the two men’s acquaintance. Petke admitted to getting his tactics wrong in the three-goal loss a fortnight ago. Will Savarese, in the face of potential RSL changes, be able to use what he knows about Petke to predict how RSL will line up?

“First of all, they have a good team,” Savarese responded, an implicit reminder that the game will be decided between the lines, not outside them. “They have good players. They have a difficult team, and they’re going to be tough to play against at home.

“Petke, I played with him,” he continued. “I know him well. He’s a good coach. He’s done well, and he’s going to prepare for the match to try to bring the best that he can.”

Still, Savarese concedes that predicting his opponent will be important. But that’s important every match, and even though facing the same opponent in consecutive games “is never easy,” according to Savarese – the unpredictability of Petke’s sure-to-change approach being the obvious example of why, here – the process leading up to the game remains the same.

“Our staff, we need to try to predict things. We need to try to figure things out,” he explained. “We have to give the best information to the players. That way, when they’re on the field, they can see what we already expected and know how to deal with those things, and then adjust to the others … in order to be ready for those things as well.

“That’s what we try all the time. Sometimes you get it closer than not, and other moments, you just have to make sure you are prepared at the game in order to be able to change certain things.”

That last clause may be the most important Know Your Opponent factoid, headed into the weekend. Real Salt Lake will have played 33 games by the time they take the field at Providence Park on Sunday, giving the Timbers’ staff a wealth of knowledge to take into a potentially playoff-clinching battle. But in the face of that 4-1 result two weeks ago, perhaps the only thing that’s guaranteed for Sunday is, to dead-horse a cliché, that nothing will be guaranteed. Real Salt Lake has to change. It’s just impossible to know how.

Come kickoff, Portland will have to be prepared to change on the fly. They’ll have to know the strengths of players like Albert Rusnak, Damir Kreilach, Justen Glad and Nick Rimando, knowing how they might employ them as much as how they have. They have to be prepared for RSL’s history as well as their potential, because if there is anything you can bet on ahead of Sunday’s kickoff, it’s RSL’s determination to improve on what happened two weeks ago.