Larrys Mabiala, Timbers training, 10.29.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

MLS Cup Playoffs | International break offers needed recovery time for battle-tested Timbers

BEAVERTON, Ore. – “I don’t know if you had a chance to be in the dressing room, afterward,” Portland Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala said to the assembled media. “The joy, the happiness we had was something awesome.”

It was five days after the Timbers had eliminated rival Seattle Sounders FC on penalty kicks in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals, and aside from the chaos of the postgame locker room media scrum, Tuesday was the first time Mabiala and his teammates had talked to the press since qualifying for the Western Conference Championship.

Sporting Kansas City is now in focus (Sept. 25, 4:30pm PT, FS1), but memories of a historic night at CenturyLink Field aren’t far off. Neither are the memories of those 120 minutes’ output.

“At the end of the game, up there (in Seattle), [my legs] were very heavy,” Mabiala explained. “It was very difficult. Especially on the turf, 120 minutes, it asks a lot more energy.”

Energy that was in short supply after what the Timbers had endured the week before. The previous Sunday, Portland had again faced Seattle, at Providence Park, in a match that kicked off four days after the team’s Knockout Round triumph at FC Dallas.

It was the type of three-games-in-one-week stretch the Timbers had struggled with during the regular season. Last week, though, amid 30 extra minutes and stakes that threatened to end the team’s campaign, Portland wrote their short-rest story anew. Although they didn’t technically win all three matches, after each game, they left the field closer to an MLS title.

“It was fantastic, mentally, how the guys were able to fight through the match,” head coach Giovanni Savarese explained, “because being able to come back from Sunday to Thursday, to go to extra time and go to PKs, it was difficult.”

Friday through Sunday, after the team’s return from Seattle, the Timbers’ squad got some well-earned time off, returning to the field for a light session on Monday before a more charged practice the next day. Wednesday, however, will be a day off – a normal occurrence when the team doesn’t play the coming weekend, but also a reminder of the uneven scheduling of Major League Soccer’s postseasons.

With a FIFA-mandated break for international matches falling in the middle of MLS’ playoff calendar, two weeks separate each conference’s semifinals from their championship series. Any momentum the Timbers might get from Thursday’s emotional win in Seattle – or Sporting, the New York Red Bulls or Atlanta United FC could carry from their respective triumphs – will slowly fade beneath the reset mandated by the world’s soccer calendar.

“It’s difficult …,” Mabiala conceded, when asked about reconciling the break with the team’s on-field momentum. “After [advancing] against Seattle, you just want to go on to the next game. But at the same time, it was a very long game, a very difficult (game) emotionally and physically, too … [Advancing] on the penalty shootout was very exhausting, for us.”

Signs of that exhaustion were starting to set in near the hour-mark of the match in Seattle. The team mustered more energy after Raúl Ruidíaz’s 68th minute goal, with the crests and troughs of an emotional ending carrying the squad home. Within that drama, though, were players laboring to get back to their positions, passing lanes opening up that would have otherwise been shut down, and a Timbers team that had to replace freshness with guile.

“The guys mentally were strong, and that carried on physically,” Savarese explained. “Right after the match, they were still excited, full of energy. But that’s why we gave a few days off for the guys to relax and recover.”

That will be the main goal of this, the teams’ extra week. With players like Jorge Villafaña, Andy Polo and Cristhian Paredes on international duty, the full squad isn’t even around to prepare for the next obstacle.

Come next week, though, teams will be back to their normal schedules, using the initial days of the week to slowly build toward their weekend opponent. By then, all four conference championship qualifiers will be on equal footing, with their routines having returned to their regular-season rhythms.

“We’re getting closer to something very important, and we feel excited about that,” Savarese said. “But also, we want to prepare one game at a time. We want to come in with the right mentality.

“We want to be sure that we are very balanced, emotionally, and hopefully we can control everything that is on the pitch.”