Thirty-three games have passed in the blink of an eye, just as they do throughout the first eight months of every Major League Soccer season. On Sunday, the “regular” portion of the 2018 campaign comes to an end, with this weekend’s MLS Decision Day presented by AT&T match against rival Vancouver Whitecaps FC (1:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS) serving as the Portland Timbers’ transition into the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Where, exactly, the Timbers are seeded in those playoffs remains to be seen, and the opponent Portland will play in their opening match is yet to be determined. On the surface, that implies there’s much to play for on Sunday, but with so much of Portland’s destiny, per the Western Conference standings, lying in other team’s hands, the Timbers may have to take a more nuanced approach.
That balancing act is one of the three keys for this, the 34th and final game of Portland’s regular season. Thanks for last week’s win over Real Salt Lake, though, the team has already assured itself a 35th kickoff.
Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three must-knows for the weekend’s match in Vancouver:
1. Balancing act, or tight rope?
There was an eerie, subtle transition that took place between Sunday and Wednesday’s return to training, three days that saw the Timbers move from a pose of ultimate control to one relying on fate. Before kickoff last weekend against Real Salt Lake, Portland had its immediate destiny in hand, knowing any result would confirm the team’s place in the Western Conference playoffs. After the game, however, with one glance at the standings and the schedule, the Timbers were left thinking about the fortunes of others.
Third-place FC Dallas needs to lose at the Colorado Rapids for the Timbers for leapfrog them in the standings. Seattle Sounders FC, in fourth place, would have to drop points to the San Jose Earthquakes. Passing second-place Los Angeles FC is also possible, but a huge swing in goal difference would have to happen between Portland’s trip to Vancouver and LAFC’s game at first-place Sporting Kansas City.
In other words, some stars would have to align in order for the Timbers to get to fourth place and host a mid-week, knockout round game at Providence Park, and while we’ve certainly seen sports deliver more extreme surprises, Portland has to keep one reality in mind: Sunday’s game is not as important as the one the team’s destined to play mid-week. No matter the location – Portland, Dallas, Los Angeles, Kansas City or Seattle – the Timbers have to be at their best just under a week from now.
That doesn’t mean any players or approaches are necessarily off the table come Sunday. It just means the Knockout Round game has to remain in view. If Giovanni Savarese and his staff feel like players can handle the turnaround, expect a full team for Vancouver. If not, the depth the Timbers have consciously accumulated since January will be asked to step forward.
2. Does Attinella get time?
He was in the 18-man squad last week against RSL, but after failing to see any action against his former team, Jeff Attinella has now seen only 88 minutes of action since Sept. 1. A hamstring injury suffered at New England followed by a shoulder separation in his return game against FC Dallas has derailed the most successful season of Attinella’s professional career.
Now, that season could get back on the rails, Attinella’s health permitting. But after last week, the readiness of the Timbers’ No. 1’s shoulder may not be the only factor. Following a standout performance from the newly-arrived Steve Clark, speculation has arisen about riding the hot hand. After his performance against Real Salt Lake, there’s reason to believe Clark can get the job done.
Attinella, though, was one of the better goalkeepers in Major League Soccer before his injuries. Perhaps he wasn’t inching his way into Goalkeeper of the Year conversation, exactly, but there was little doubt the 30-year-old had established himself as a deserving, unquestioned No. 1. Even now, the best version of this year’s Portland Timbers may be one with a healthy Attinella in goal.
Whether he is healthy enough to play on Sunday is something the coaching staff has to determine before kickoff, but if Attinella is, his availability will play into another, recently-ignited discussion. Where Savarese and his staff weigh in on that debate will be revealed in Vancouver, as well as the game that follows.
3. Scoreboard watching
First place is out of reach, and the Timbers can’t drop lower than the Western Conference’s fifth spot the team occupies, now. Every other slot in the conference pecking order is theoretically possible, though, even if it will take some goal-difference magic for Portland to ascend to number two. And between Sporting Kansas City at the top and the LA Galaxy in seventh, there are six different teams who the Timbers could face when they open their 2018 postseason.
It’s almost enough to make you want to turn off your phone, simplify your life, and wait until Vancouver’s final whistle to check out the rest of the MLS world. With all kickoffs simultaneous on Sunday, you can focus on the Timbers game and have the playoff morass sorted by the time Portland leaves the field. But none of us ever turn off our phones, and with the potential for such tantalizing matchups as a one-off with Seattle, it will be hard to keep both eyes off the scoreboards.
The Timbers coaching staff will want to stay in the know. They may not be able to control how Dallas and Seattle perform, but if those teams take a match in Providence Park off the table, Savarese and Co. may want to adjust. Likewise, if Colorado or San Jose decide to help the Timbers out, Portland’s coaches will want to know the implications of their decisions.