Three days ago, the Portland Timbers were in the Bronx, playing a Major League Soccer game on a Major League Baseball field, working to knock off one of the hottest teams on their circuit. One 1-0 victory later, mission accomplished. The Timbers were leaving New York with their 15-day, five-match stretch off to an ideal start.
Tonight, having traveled across the continent, the Timbers will be in Los Angeles, playing a U.S. Open Cup game on an actual soccer field, working to knock off the best team in the country (7:30pm PT, ESPN+). If Sunday’s result is repeated, Portland will be into their second Open Cup semifinal, returning home with a measure of revenge, having made progress against what may prove their season’s most significant obstacle.
This isn’t your normal U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal. A quick scan across the bracket shows this is the round’s marquee matchup. But even if the other three match were more than David versus Goliath plays, Portland and LAFC would stand out, and for more reasons than MLS’ current dominant force matching up with last year’s Western Conference champions.
In the 16 months that LAFC’s been active, contests between the two teams have achieved a rivalry’s tension. The teams seem to legitimately dislike each other, with the disdain first peaking at this exact moment last season. There’s every reason to expect a second-straight meeting in Open Cup’s final eight to fan those coals.
Whether we can call Portland-LAFC a rivalry, well, we’ll get to that, below. There are two areas to address first in today’s KeyBank Scouting Report.
We can be honest about the fact that, in its early rounds, U.S. Open Cup feels like a balancing act for MLS clubs. Each team seems to go through their own cost-benefit analysis, trying to decide how much to commit to the tournament. For some teams, it’s full force from the start. For others, other competitions and player preservation demand a wait-and-see approach.
For every team, though, there comes a point where any risks are offset by the reward. And in recent years, that point is the quarterfinals. Not only are you “only” three wins from a trophy, a place in the next Concacaf Champions League as well as, for one team, a potential Cup final at home, but the break between the Round of 16 and quarters gives every team a chance to adjust.
Take the Timbers, for example. After years of constantly being drawn into derbies against Seattle Sounders FC at Starfire Sports in Tukwila, an attitude of “this is ridiculous” seemed to prevail, one that meant the Open Cup would not be allowed to compromise the MLS season. On Sunday in New York, though, Diego Chara was rested. Cristhian Paredes didn’t play. None of Jorge Moreira, Julio Cascante or Jeremy Ebobisse were in the starting lineup. Perhaps those decisions had a 15-day view in mind, but clearly, some players were being saved for Open Cup.
With one more win, Portland will make the semifinals and tie its high-water mark in Open Cup competition. One more win after that, and the team will not only make but could host its first Open Cup final.
And one win after that? That’s what this whole competition is about.
It’s entirely possible the Timbers will start its strongest XI tonight. But the team has a match on Saturday, and another game four days after that. Perhaps you could disagree with the choice, but if Giovanni Savarese and his staff decided to rest prominent players tonight, it would be justifiable, on one level.
There’s also a middle ground. We saw it in New York. Among the XI chosen for NYCFC, six would have started in the Timbers’ strongest lineup, right now. Perhaps instead of fully rotating his team, as he did on June 26 at Montreal, Savarese will again rest a handful of starters, keeping them ready for use at an injury’s notice.y
No matter the choice, rotation – or the degree to which Savarese will rotate – will be a defining question before tonight’s game, as it will before Saturday against Colorado, next Thursday against Orlando, and 11 days from now against Seattle. The standard for the choices’ success is simple. As Savarese said during the team’s last busy stretch, the rotations only work if you get results.
It’s getting a bit tiresome, the constant speculation of whether Portland and LAFC are rivals. It started last year, remarkably, when people seemed to mistake enmity with something more significant. Now, a year later, after a highly contentious match between the teams on June 1, that enmity has become significant on its own.
It feels a lot like what’s happened on the Thorns’ side. There, Portland’s NWSL club has an obvious rival – Reign FC, which played in Seattle until this season – but has developed a heightened dynamic with the North Carolina Courage. In year one of that dynamic, when the Courage were in Western New York, the tension was curious. Year two? There was an escalation. Now, having passed through year three into year four, there’s no denying the teams have become rivals.
If it’s inevitable that Portland and LAFC go down the same road, let’s just skip all this are they, aren’t they junk. If both teams are committed to abhorring each other, let’s honor that commitment. Let’s not pretend something isn’t there just because it feels awkward.
That awkwardness isn’t about LAFC, what’s happened on the field, or the trends that have defined the relationship’s course. It’s about timing. To most of us, you can’t just show up, point at a team, and say, “Hey: A rival!” That seems insane. At this point, though, as discordant as it may seem, this matchup has a rivalry’s feel.