PORTLAND, Ore. – Take bets beforehand on which Portland Timber is most likely utter the phrase “road dogs,” and goalkeeper Steve Clark would be the overwhelming favorite. You could imagine somebody like Larrys Mabiala using it, combining the term with his Parisian accent to cast a clinical, sterile judgement on Portland’s road form. Maybe Diego Valeri, increasingly lyrical with his English, would vault it into a metaphor about, I don’t know … the transcendence of belief between home and road?
When Clark’s used it, though, as he did this weekend in Seattle, he’s used it as a sign of bravado. There’s a pride you can take in a by-any-means attitude, one which, in sports, can flatten the challenges of travel, lost training time, environment or opposition into a singular reality. We, he implies of his team, have to scrounge, no matter what. We have to fight, blindly and faithfully, for anything we get in someone else’s home. We have to be as fearsome, tenacious and ignorant as the most single-minded, abandoned animal, knowing the only things we get in life are the ones that come from desperation.
All of which would be great content if the Timbers were on the road this week. But they’re not. They’re back home on Saturday, facing the LA Galaxy (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, FS1), hoping to build on what, four months ago, was this season’s promise. At the beginning of the campaign, those focused on the Timbers foresaw road struggles leading into a fruitful summer and fall at home. At this point, though, Portland’s approaching break-even on the road, improving to 6-7-2 on the season after wins at two teams who were previously unbeaten at home: New York City FC and Seattle Sounders FC. Portland’s last two games at Providence Park, though? Draws against the Colorado Rapids and Orlando City SC, teams who sit 11th and ninth in their respective conferences.
If life in Major League Soccer is truly tougher on the road – something we’re ceaselessly told (because it seems true) – then how can this be? How can the Timbers be this relentless, indefatigable force way from Goose Hollow then return to be, well, not?
This is where Clark’s words gain even more value. When Portland is on the road, they play like desperate dogs. At home, though, they have to deal with the dog, and over the past two matches at Providence Park, the dog’s won out. The same by-any-means attitude that’s defined Portland’s approach away from Goose Hollow has, in the hands of their visitors, cost the Timbers points at home.
Just as every week with the KeyBank Scouting Report, we’re going to define three areas of focus – parts of Saturday’s game that are worth thinking about before kickoff. More than anything, though, Portland’s next game at Providence Park may be defined by how much of their road dog comes back home. Instead of easing into Saturday’s game in the moments after kickoff, they need to, from the start, play with the same intensity in minutes one through five that they’ve shown after the second half’s kickoff, in minutes 46 though 50.
If other teams want to grind it out, more power to them. But you have to match their resolve. Wear those road dogs down. Show them why they should fear life on the road.
Another chance without Chara
Diego Chara only played 14 minutes on July 7. By the time he came on at Yankee Stadium, the Timbers were already up, 1-0. That’s how the game would end. With the win, Portland hadn’t completely thrown the monkey off their backs, the one constantly reminding them they’d gone over four years since winning without Chara, but in beating New York City FC, they showed it was possible.
Chara won’t be coming on as a substitute this Saturday. He won’t be playing at all. After being shown a late yellow card on Sunday in Seattle, the Timbers mainstay is suspended for Saturday’s game, yellow card accumulation sidelining him for the second time this season. If any doubts linger about Portland’s ability to win without Chara, Saturday gives the team a chance to silence them.
Who steps into Chara’s place will be one of the biggest questions before kickoff. Renzo Zambrano seems the probably like-for-like, but Andrés Flores is an option, too. Bill Tuiloma is another possibility, with spring’s first-choice center back also having ample experience in central midfield. Throw in the potential for a formation change, and it’s possible two players step in with the suspension of one.
The Timbers don’t suffer for options, and with the emergence of Cristhian Paredes, their non-Chara central midfield has more of a foundation than usual. But until others step up, deliver three points, and put the narrative to rest, there will always be questions about Portland’s life without Chara. At some point, the Timbers have to answer them.
Focus on progression
Talk of wins and losses and draws often overshadows the other objectives teams have during seasons, even if those objective are, ultimately, less important than those bottom lines. But coaches enter the season with a vision of how they want their team to progress – of what they see as their team’s potential, and how they want their team to reach that potential throughout the course of a season.
That view is going to come into increased focus for the post-Brian Fernandez Timbers, who’ve already shown flashes of what they can be. In back-to-back, 4-0, June wins over the Galaxy and Houston Dynamo, Portland hinted at its heights, stringing together consecutive 500-pass performances while showing what road dogs become when they feel at home.
As recent results against Colorado and Orlando showed, though, Portland can’t sustain that level, yet. The progression continues. The vision head coach Giovanni Savarese has of his team’s potential is still playing out.
“There were a few different things that I think we could have done,” Savarese said, of his team’s recent home performances. “I think we showed some great growth in certain areas, but we still have to evolve to something more. We have the right ideas. It’s about making sure that we expand our capabilities.”
I use the golf bag analog a lot, a terrible metaphor given how few people play golf. Yet there’s a logic in the idea of having a bag full of options, on which you can call under any circumstance, knowing only one of those choices will match your needs in a given scenario.
During an MLS regular season, a team’s journey is about developing those options. It’s about hitting the postseason knowing you have a full bag of viable choices to draw on. Whereas the regular season might see a team with a good driver, seven iron, and putter thrive near the top of the table, the postseason will force you, at least once, to use your pitching wedge. It will ask if you can hit a five iron out of the rough. It will make you play a draw on that second-shot three wood for a chance to salvage par.
The Timbers are already comfortable with most of their bag, but as Colorado and Orlando showed, some clubs need more work. The team still “have to evolve to something more.”
For the Galaxy, on the other hand, there is no evolving. There is one player that’s the center of their universe. He is their moon and their stars; their lands and their waters. The halcyon days of Galaxy soccer may have featured a team that had all of Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Omar Gonzalez, but now, with apologies to Jonathan Dos Santos, the club’s sun rises and sets over the same ocean.
"Dream? No, I don't need to dream,” Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Galaxy striker who has scored 38 goals in his first 44 MLS games, told ESPNFC, recently. “When I was young, I was dreaming. Now I'm in the dream. Now I am the dream.”
Credit to Ibrahimovic, 37, though, for thinking of his future, because this is the type of crap you would find on the writer’s room floor of a WWE show. Yet here he is, using the last days of his playing career to hoist a Bat-Signal for an Entourage reboot. “You may know me for scoring goals,” his act suggests, “but I’m capable of truly terrible dialog, too.”
Think about it. “I’m in the dream. Now I am the dream.” We are all the subject of our own dreams. To say you go from in the dream to being the dream is the type of low-level sophistry only an athlete could love. Since when do people dream in the third person?
It’s a pickup line at a bar where your older sister's ex hits on you, one where the smell of rancid cologne seeps out to the building’s curb but still can’t overcome the bouncer’s body odor. It’s the interior of a greeting card Hallmark would disavow. It’s a fortune cookie written by Kickstarter.
Ibrahimovic's act is a restaurant with “C” in the window, but he’s also one of the two best players in Major League Soccer – somebody who just outdueled his closest competition, Los Angeles FC’s Carlos Vela, to deliver a derby victory with a hat-trick performance. His routine, from some’s views, may be a complete and utter joke. But on the field, he’s still incredible.