BEAVERTON, Ore. – Portland Timbers’ training has resumed with the same air of confidence that characterized their last two weeks of preparation – the time that links clinching their playoff spot (winning Oct. 21, against Real Salt Lake) and this, the days before Sunday's first leg of their Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinal (2:30pm PT, ESPN | Match presented by Carls Jr.).
That said conference semifinal is against Seattle Sounders FC didn’t weigh on training, until the session was over. Then, amidst asks from the media, the players slipped into the moment, embracing what will be the second postseason meeting among Cascadia’s fiercest rivals in the Major League Soccer era. Portland won the first, in 2013.
“We were prepared for anything,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, when asked about Portland’s semifinal matchup. “Whoever we had to play against, we needed to be ready for it …
“Now we have to go and play against a team that we know very well, a team that is a big rival, that brings a different component to this playoff game. The guys are ready and prepared to be ready to perform.”
It’s a confidence that is bit discordant, when you step away from the Portland bubble and try to think about the playoff picture from a neutral pose. All sports teams try to portray an air of confidence come playoff time, but those putting up a façade usually include a strain of overcompensation, a few hints of fear, or some confusion as to how they’re going to traverse their next obstacle. Confidence can be a quote, confidence can be a mask, but moment after moment, day after day, it’s hard to make confidence into a true, unerring attitude.
The Timbers have been steady since that Oct. 21 victory: approaching last week’s, pre-Vancouver preparation with an implied comfort in their plan; approaching this week’s epilogue with the calm of a plan working out. Now, in the days before Seattle returns to Providence Park, that calm persists, as if the previous steps’ success assures the next ones will stay on course.
That, however, is only part of the plan. The next is execution, something that transcends keeping heads up in Beaverton, on the adidas Timbers Training Center practice fields. When Portland takes the field on Sunday, they will do so as a true underdog for the first time since, perhaps, their trip to New England on Sept. 1, or their visit two weeks before to Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park.
That’s when confidence will be tested. In the moment, the Timbers approach implies their five seed, need to win on the road in Dallas, or gap in the standings between themselves and the Sounders doesn’t matter, anymore; that come the postseason, they’re on the same footing as everybody else. But how strong, after 35 matches, is the footing Portland stands on?
On Sunday, that footing will be tested in what, for the Timbers, is their most high-profile playoff matchup possible. Seattle, winners of 14 of 16 and two-time defending Western Conference champions, will test every ounce of confidence Portland has accumulated since clinching their playoff spot. Seattle is not only the Timbers’ fiercest rival. At 15-2-2 since their June loss to Portland, the Sounders are the hottest team in Major League Soccer.
“Already, when you play them in the season, it’s a special game,” Savarese explained. “It brings [the game] to a different level. But now, in a playoff, in which only one (team) is going to go through, now there’s a different component.
“We need to be very mature, which we are, and we are practicing with our feet on the ground, humble and ready to be able to give everything that we have in these two games coming up.”
Ahead of a possible final, there can be no sweeter victory than one over Seattle. There can be no heavier defeat, too, something which weighed silently on Portland soccer as the playoff bracket settled. Awaiting how Thursday’s results would change the Timbers’ course, the prospect of seven days in the emotion of a derby felt like a gift and a curse.
Here are three areas of focus ahead of leg one, our KeyBank Scouting Report:
1. The tax of the Knockout Round
Every team in Major League Soccer knows the rules before the season starts, so if you end up outside of your conference’s first two spots – if you’re one of the eight teams that get pulled into those mid-week, short-turnaround matchups – you have no one to blame but yourself. The benefits of staying on a normal playing schedule are there for those who earn them.
Seattle did so with another of their trademark, late-season runs, racing all the way to second in the Western Conference. As a result, they didn’t play midweek. They didn’t see any player collect their first yellow cards. They didn’t have a defender leave round one with a suspension, and they don’t have to worry about the effects of travel – as well as 102 minutes (once stoppage time is considered) on a softened, wet field.
If Portland had finished higher in the standings, Diego Chara and Liam Ridgewell wouldn’t be carrying yellow cards back from Dallas. One more yellow before the conference finals’ second leg, and they’ll miss a match before the league’s final. Larrys Mabiala will already miss a game, having picked up a red on Wednesday in Frisco, while much of the team’s first-choice lineup faces the reality of a quick, trying turnaround.
If that wasn’t enough, scheduling considerations next weekend at CenturyLink Field mean the matchup’s second leg will have to be moved up to Thursday, Nov. 8. Instead of being able to get back on a normal routine after navigating this, the week of the Knockout Round, Portland will endure another quick turnaround ahead of the next phase in Seattle.
“That’s for MLS to figure out, not for me,” Savarese said, about the fairness of the turnaround. “The only thing for me is we have less days to play, and we have to be smart in the way we do things, and that is all. This is what we have in hand, and we’re preparing for it.”
Three games. Nine days. For those who happened to see the field last Sunday in Vancouver, it will be four games in 12. It’s a stiffer obstacle than most face, but it’s also the tax of the Knockout Round.
2. Life without Larrys
Mabiala has been the defense’s most steady part – the rock around which a series of moving pieces orbited. Zarek Valentin has been a constant, too, but he’s spent time at both the left and right fullback spots. Injuries, selection and midseason acquisitions have rotated seven others into defensive regular roles, but at right-center back, Mabiala has been the team’s constant.
That’s what makes Sunday’s problem even more troublesome. Losing a key component ahead of a task like Seattle would be difficult even with a simple solution, but as evidenced other times Mabiala has missed time, there isn’t one. The last time the team tried in earnest, a center-back pairing of Julio Cascante and Ridgewell conceded three times in the first 45 minutes in Minnesota.
There was the Vancouver game, too. Cascante and Bill Tuiloma gave up two goals, there. And on Wednesday in Frisco, Tuiloma came on and helped keep Dallas from opening their account until minute 94.
Tuiloma seems to be the favorite to inherit Mabiala’s role, but as the coaching staff did before starting a Tuiloma-Ridgewell pairing at Real Salt Lake (a 4-1 win), tactical considerations will likely be considered. Tuiloma has certain strengths. Cascante has others. It is up to Portland’s coaches to decide which will fit best against Seattle.
“We have an army, a big roster, and everybody is eager to play,” Savarese said, “so I am sure that anybody who steps on the field is going to do the job that we need.”
But whether they choose their younger Costa Rican or their slightly young New Zealander, the Timbers will be hard pressed to replicate what they’ve gotten from Mabiala.
3. The reality of away goals
Sunday begins a 180-minute match, not a 90-minute one. The stance the Timbers took in protecting their early lead in Texas won’t, so early in this round, be as wise at Providence Park. The value of an early goal diminishes when there’s another 90 minutes four days in the future.
What that does, though, is create an incentive to be more conservative, especially with the away goals rule looming so large. For those unaware, the tiebreaker after a potential even score come the 180-minute mark leaves the team with most away goals moving on. Extra time (and potentially, penalty kicks) will only happen if that number is equal.
That means the Timbers have more incentive to keep a clean sheet at Providence Park. Yet Seattle could look at a potential 0-0 and justify a more defensive approach, content to take their chances over 90 minutes at CenturyLink Field. After all, if you’re the Sounders, don’t you feel you can best anybody at home?
This dynamic could weigh heavily on Sunday’s game, making every goal scored that much more valuable. All along, through, both sides will have to keep Thursday in view.