ATLANTA, Ga. – “There are a lot more butterflies,” Portland Timbers right back Alvas Powell says, laughing, when asked to compare the final days of this year’s MLS Cup run to the one he played a part in three years ago.
Back then, the Jamaican right back was the team’s unquestioned starter, playing at Nat Borchers’ side as the Timbers claimed their first MLS crown. This year, ahead of Saturday's 2018 MLS Cup though (5pm PT, FOX), Powell has had to adopt a different approach, with the new depth 2018 can afford putting him in constant competition for his spot.
In 113 minutes this postseason, though, Powell has shown he’d likely be getting more time in a thinner squad. Starting in leg two against Seattle Sounders FC in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Western Conference Semifinals before coming on to help lock down Portland’s series against Sporting Kansas City in the Western Conference Championship, Powell’s proven capable of stepping up at any moment.
“I think it’s really important to keep your head in the game, regardless of whether you’re playing,” he explains. “The coach and the teammates make you feel like you’re a part of the team, so my role, as a player, is to always stay ready and wait for my name to be called upon. When my name is called, I give it my best.”
It’s an attitude that has helped the rest of the Timbers bench make huge contributions this fall, too – contributions which, when you look across the rest of MLS’ postseason qualifiers, feel broader than most.
Dairon Asprilla won a hero’s praise for his performance in Seattle, where his goal, assist and shootout-winning penalty kick proved a decisive performance. That same game, Lawrence Olum came on in what’s becoming a closer’s role, occupying a place in the middle of a three-central-defender look that head coach Giovanni Savarese also used to finish out Sporting. Andrés Flores, in place of an injured David Guzmán, was also crucial in that second Seattle match, being part of the reason the Sounders were forced wide for much of the match.
Go down the remainder of the bench, and you see additional valuable contributions. Bill Tuiloma has started two games and come on early in the third over the Timbers’ Western Conference run, while Lucas Melano has become a regular contributor seeing out games’ final moments in a forward role. Even Steve Clark, though yet to appear in the playoffs, was vital over the last month of the regular season, conceding only once over the team’s final two wins.
“I had to adapt to my role, because we had a very deep roster,” Flores says, the Salvadorian international having moved to Portland from the New York Cosmos this offseason. “We have a lot of quality players and a lot of important players, here, with a lot of experience. So we all have our part in the team. We all had our important moments during the season, and that’s why the team is here.”
The 2015 team had depth, too. Current FC Dallas star Maxi Urruti was a substitute, then, as was Asprilla and Jack Jewsbury. They all saw time in the final in Columbus. Still, at a point in Major League Soccer where teams have more spending power – where mechanisms like Targeted Allocation Money allow teams to, well, target depth – 2018 is different. Portland has not only had valuable depth, in theory. That theory’s played out over this playoff run.
And, in fairness, that theory has been front and center throughout the season, going all the way back to the spring, when the Timbers’ lineup battles were playing out. “Everybody is important,” Savarese would say, when media would ask about lineup decisions surrounding players like Fanendo Adi and Liam Ridgewell. Even then, the words felt like forecasting, with a “wait and see” tone marking the coach’s maxim.
Now, we’ve seen, and on Saturday, we’ll likely get another look. With 120 minutes and penalties possible, the fresh legs and changes each coach can bring from their benches could turn the match.
Even if they don’t, those options are a big reason why the Timbers have gotten this far, and although Saturday’s biggest stars have rightly gotten the lion’s share of attention this week, Portland’s bench deserves some of the love.