Timbers in Tucson | Portland ready for new preseason challenge ahead of Seattle

TUCSON, Ariz. – The three-week mark of a Major League Soccer team’s preseason, presented by Old Trapper Beef Jerky, usually finds players rounding into physical shape, coaches building squads toward full match fitness, and a need to face some real competition. On this week’s arrival in Tucson, Arizona, the Portland Timbers were at those marks, in some ways. In others, they are well beyond.

The Timbers will face their first MLS competition of the 2019 preseason on Wednesday, kicking at Kino Sports Complex against Seattle Sounders FC as part of the 2019 Mini Mobile Sun Cup (6pm PT, Timbers.com). That will fill the competition aspect of this, the third-week, mid-point of the team’s preseason.

On the physical side, though, the team is well beyond a normal team’s pace. The level of activities the coaching staff planned before the team’s arrival have has been tweaked, here and there, with planning double sessions occasionally being limited on singles. Work on the technical and tactical side is goes on, but in terms of the team’s fitness, the team is not on a third-week course.

“We didn’t have a long vacation like last year,” left back Marco Farfan explained, in Spanish, agreeing that the group’s fitness level is surprisingly high, for this point of a preseason. “That’s helped us a lot, because even when we were training on our own, we didn’t have much chance to break from the routine. It’s been easier to keep up with the trainings, early on.”

It also gives Wednesday’s friendly against Seattle a different context. Normally, at this point of a preseason, a team would use games like these to build their fitness base, as well as refine parts of their tactical system. Those things will still be in play for the Timbers, too, who will keep building their players from the 45-minute sessions they saw in friendlies a week ago.

But with training at higher levels than at this point in other preseasons, Wednesday’s exhibition provides a needed break for a team who, already settling into a groove, needs a reprieve from competing against itself.

“It’s going to be important,” midfielder Diego Chara said about the game, speaking in Spanish, when asked about the value of competing against new faces.

“We know the MLS teams, so this gives us a better idea of where we are at, in our preparation. But it’s also a match against Seattle, against whom there are no friendlies.”

It’s a level of competition the team needs, right now, according to Farfan, who recognized both the values and limitations to competition within the squad.

“We understand you always want to be training as preparation for matches,” he explained, “but you are also competing against your teammates.”

There’s a level you can’t quite get to, competitively, when you’re facing against your brothers, if for no other reason than not wanting to put your brother at risk. At some point, you need to compete against somebody else.

“It’s good to have a different opponent, the same opposition, and have something you can share,” Farfan explained further. “If you get a little annoyed or angry at something, you’ll have the Seattle Sounders or another team across from you instead of each other.”

Many teams reach a place like this. At the end of the preseason process, you want to be hungry for the real games to start – to feel like the entire winter’s preparation has led you to the perfect place. You don’t want to burn players out before a season starts, but you also don’t want the team to be in search of itself come the first real kickoff.

Last year, the balance wasn’t quite right, for Portland. Through a preseason where the team’s level was explained away by squad turnover, the new technical staff, veterans pacing themselves and the injury absence of Chara, there was hope things would click when the team traveled to their season opener against the LA Galaxy. Though Portland fell in a close match, 2-1, the group would go on to a disappointing performance the following week at the New York Red Bulls (0-4 loss), eventually finishing their five-game, opening road stretch at 0-3-2.

“Last year was the first year of (head coach) Gio (Savarese,” Chara says, explaining why the level of this year’s preseason is “a lot” higher than years before. “We were still working out certain elements, like when to play where, or different movements.

“This year, we already understand the system. The team is better prepared,” he said, before thinking of Wednesday’s task. “We are 20, 22 days from the start of the season, and I think we’re ready to play a good match.”

It is all a hypothesis, until the season starts. After all, if the Timbers struggle this March as they did last, all this talk of fitness, style, preparation and philosophy will sound hollow. It’s one thing to describe differences. It’s another thing to draw conclusions.

This preseason is different, though. The team is in its third week of training, but its preparation is two steps beyond. Whether the explanation is the short offseason, the competition in the squad, or the familiarity with Savarese’s system, things have progressed from where they were 12 months ago. The factors which, in hindsight, may have been ills of the 2018 preseason aren’t here, anymore.

Whether that means anything come March 2 against the Colorado Rapids (3pm PT) remains to be seen. Regardless, the next step toward that test arrives tomorrow.