Back-to-back road wins at New York City FC and Los Angeles FC have already made this a successful week for the Portland Timbers. But across the seven days that started on Sunday in the Bronx, there’s still one more game to go, and although a home game against the Colorado Rapids Saturday (8pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)) may not have the luster of the week’s previous challenges, a slip against an improving foe will offset much of the progress the team made in New York.
Such is life with expectations. The Timbers have earned those, thanks to a three-month stretch which, extending back to April 20, has seen Portland go 10-3-1, outscore their opponents by 16 goals, and score victories at the leaders of both the Eastern and Western Conferences. With that form, Portland and their fans have every right to expect a win at home against Colorado. Now, it’s time to deliver.
Victory on Saturday could move the Timbers within one point of a playoff spot pending the weekend’s other results, but it won’t be as easy as Colorado’s last-place standing implies. Like Portland, the Rapids have spent the last couple of months redefining their season, shifting gears after a slow start to play closer to their preseason expectations. The struggles Colorado carried from 2018 into the new year have given way to a team that’s discovered how to defend, knows how leverage new talents, and can make any opponent’s life difficult.
In that sense, Saturday’s challenge may be closer to the Timbers’ last home opponent than that of a cellar dweller. FC Dallas was a team in the middle of the West’s playoff picture when Portland defeated them, 1-0, on June 30. Right now, Colorado’s playing at the same level.
Here are three areas of focus ahead of Saturday night’s kickoff, in this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:
On one hand, we’ve been spending a lot of time in this space: thinking about workloads; speculating about strategies; wondering how many of the Timbers’ regular starters will be in the next lineup. Before every game, we’re finding new ways to say the same thing, trying to pretend our new conversation is different than the last. Every time, though, it comes down to the same question: Who is going to be in the lineup?
It’s possibly the most important question you can ask before a game – the reason why we keep asking it – yet ahead of Saturday’s kickoff, there are still a lot of unknowns. After starting a near-full-strength team Wednesday in Los Angeles, which players will be pressed into action against Colorado? Should we assume those who also started Sunday against NYCFC are going to be on the bench? And can the Timbers afford to take chances when, sitting below the playoff line, valuable points can be made up at home?
This is normally where we’d put a quote from a coach, a player, or somebody else who can answer those questions, but let’s be real: More than 24 hours before kickoff, nobody is telling us what tomorrow’s lineup will be. And given how many times the Timbers have dealt with short rest this summer, the realities of rotating the lineup feel very familiar, now.
Since U.S. Open Cup started, managing player workloads has been a major concern. It will be no different tomorrow. When a stretch of three games in seven days comes, you’re going to have to rotate your lineup.
The new Colorado
When the Rapids fired then-head coach Anthony Hudson on May 1, they were 0-7-2, had conceded 24 goals, and were left disillusioned after a winter in which they’d acquired Kei Kamara, Diego Rubio, Nicolas Mezquida and Benny Feilhaber. The idea those players made Colorado into a playoff contender was already worth some healthy skepticism, but nobody expected that skepticism to be reality so soon.
Since taking over for Hudson, though, Conor Casey’s crafted a new reality, one most evident on the defensive side of the field. Whereas the Rapids were giving up over two goals per match before, Colorado’s only conceded 14 times in 10 games since. Having won five of those matches, the Rapids are playing as if they could have been a postseason contender with a better start.
Maybe this is just a good stretch. Perhaps their true level is somewhere in between. Regardless, Colorado is no longer the doormat they were under Hudson. Under their new coach, they’ve actually been good.
The importance of points at home
Every match at Providence Park since the June 1 home opener has been accompanied by a subtle tension – a realization that, needing to climb up the standings, the team couldn’t afford to drop many points at home. The loss to Los Angeles FC to start that month was fine – nobody is going to fault you for coming close against them – but for games against Houston and then Dallas, there was a strange, must-win feel.
Thanks to Sunday’s win in New York, the Timbers have some wiggle room. With at least one game in hand on the teams above them in the standings, Portland is now within four points of a playoff spot, and they’ve still played 11 more games on the road than at home. Even though the team’s 14 remaining games in Goose Hollow should be approached with a sense of urgency, there’s no longer a paranoia about an unexpected loss. The season, finally, is starting to fell normal.
Part of that normalcy, though, will be talk of playoff positioning, and playing postseason games at home. Portland needs to get above the playoff line first, but given the team’s internal expectations, they can also think about something more. They can start thinking about how games like Saturday’s against Colorado and Thursday’s against Orlando are opportunities to make up ground. First place in the conference might be out of reach, but climbing even as high as second place is still possible.
That may be the true importance of these games at home. Playoffs? Yes, of course, we have to acknowledge the Timbers are below the line. More realistically, though, games like Saturday’s are about positioning. They’re about whether there’ll be a playoff game at Providence Park.