BEAVERTON, Ore. – The full debut of the new Providence Park means Saturday will be about more than a soccer game. But there is still a soccer game to be played (7:30pm PT, ESPN2), and if the Portland Timbers plans for 2019 unfold as they hope, the first Major League Soccer game in the team’s remodeled home could prove one of the most important of the season.
Los Angeles FC already sent the Timbers a message once this year, pulling away late for a 4-1 victory when the teams met in March. Since then, Bob Bradley’s team has spent two-and-a-half months reciting the same message to the rest of the league, with their 12-1-4 record and plus-25 goal difference positioning the second-year team for an attack on MLS’ record book. If Providence Park’s latest reveal is supposed to be a marquee event, there’s no better opponent to occupy the visiting locker room.
Undoubtedly, LAFC’s quality comes with risk, but with the Timbers coming off a 4-1-1 stretch to close their road trip, Portland’s put themselves in position to seize that risk’s reward. They knocked off one conference leader last week. On Saturday, they’ll get their chance at another.
Here are three areas of focus ahead of tomorrow’s kickoff, this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:
Home teams are 86-44-39 this year – a 1.76 points-per-game rate that would be the top mark in the Eastern Conference. To put names to it, when teams play at home, they perform slightly worse than the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders FC, teams that have the second- and third-best records in the league, right now. On the road, teams perform more like Orlando City or Columbus Crew SC.
That’s a night and day difference, one which, for the Timbers, has always been more profound. Although the team is averaging 1.17 points per game on the road this season (league average: 1.01), the club’s mark over its MLS history, coming into this season was lower: 0.92. At Providence Park, though, they made up that ground, taking an average of 1.89 points per game at home.
Whereas the road has always proven tough in Major League Soccer, the Timbers managed their opening stretch slightly better than most. And now, back at Providence Park, they’ll see if home ground is as fruitful as it was been before.
The LAFC juggernaut
Major League Soccer’s record for points in a season is 69. Toronto FC set that two years ago. Through 15 games, LAFC is on pace to reach 77. Even if they slow down, MLS’ new titan may find themselves in the record books.
Same goes for goal difference. Having conceded only 11 times this year, LAFC has a plus-25 mark. If they stay on their plus-56 pace, they’ll crush the 1998 LA Galaxy’s benchmark (plus-41).
But wait. There’s more. With 15 goals in as many games, Carlos Vela is on pace (34) to best the league record set last season, when Atlanta United FC’s Josef Martinez buried 31. Vela also leads the league in assists, with his nine helpers putting him on track to become the third player in league history to reach the 20-assist mark (Carlos Valderrama, 26, 2000; Sacha Kljestan, 20, 2016).
There’s plenty of time for Vela and LAFC to regress to a mean. After all, the season isn’t even half-way over. Even so, this may be the best 15-game stretch MLS has ever seen. Portland’s job: Make sure it doesn’t grow.
The excitement of a challenge
It’s understandable that some would prefer an easier opponent for the Timbers’ home opener, but given how Portland has played over the last six weeks, it’s time for this challenge. The sooner the team knows how they stack up against LAFC, the better, and while March 10 seemed to provide some indication, three months of progress leaves late winter in another world.
At their most basic level, sports have to be about challenges: about the barriers you break through, as an individual; about the heights you can achieve, as a collective. So early in a season, there is no greater height a team can achieve than knocking off their league’s top dog. And there is no doubt that, right now, Bradley’s team is that top dog.
All week, Timbers players have been able to think about that. With each session and each drill, they’ve been able to visualize that reward. “What if, after a terrible start and three months on the road, we come home and pull this off? What if we remind people of what we really are?”
These are the moments athletes play for, moments that go beyond one week’s work. All the time they put in growing up, the battles waged to win jobs, the sacrifices that led them to Portland - it’s to be able to play in games that matter most. It’s to have a few moments after the final whistle when, having brought a week’s focus to fruition, you can feel untouchable.
Nobody will confuse Saturday with a playoff game or something more grandiose. They shouldn’t. But for a match on June 1, the chance to derail LAFC is all anybody could ask for.