BEAVERTON, Ore. – The Chicago Fire has never beaten the Portland Timbers in Major League Soccer.
Does that surprise you? Perhaps not. You may have already known before clicking on this article. But me, when I went to look at the head-to-head history between the teams, I was reminded (as I’m sure I was reminded last year, when I last wrote a preview for this matchup): Though all but one of the teams’ games has been decided by a goal or less, when they’ve faced the Timbers in MLS, Chicago has gone 0-4-5.
The flip side of that: Portland hasn’t beaten the Fire since July 2015. In the three games since, the teams have drawn each time, making the history of this matchup less about Timbers dominance than the teams’ inability to distinguish themselves. Even last year, when Portland led for 73 minutes in Bridgeview, the teams still found a way to end up level.
Wednesday is the latest chance for something to find the win column, though given the week Chicago’s enduring, one team faces a difficult decision as to how hard they can go (8pm PT, TICKETS, ROOT SPORTS). Here’s this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three areas of focus for the latest visit from the Fire.
The line (and more) is back in view
The Timbers entered Saturday’s derby against Vancouver out of reach of the Western Conference’s playoff line, knowing a win would only put them back within touching distance of seventh. From that place now, though, the team is only two back of a playoff spot, and perhaps more important in the big picture, Portland is only four back of fourth in the conference.
For those who’ve forgotten about the league’s offseason rules changes, that level is particularly important. Beginning this season, seven teams from each conference make the postseason, with each first-place finisher getting a bye into the conference semifinals. Before then, the other top-four finishers host a do-or-die game in the conference quarterfinals (a.k.a., “Round 1”).
As of now, Portland is four points back of fourth-place San Jose, and they hold a match in hand. They actually hold a match in hand on every team above them in the standings, four of which still have to make a trip to Providence Park. That list includes second-place Seattle, who are only five points up on the Timbers as their August 23 visit looms.
More short rest
At least Portland got three off days between games, this time. Last week, it was only two. Two days’ rest, twice. Sunday to Wednesday in Minnesota. Wednesday to Saturday between the Twin Cities and Portland. The team’s latest mid-week match may technically be on short rest, but between having time at home and the extra day between games, Chicago’s visit may be the least taxing of the team’s current run.
“It’s not easy, having four games in such a short period of time,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, in Spanish, on Tuesday, “and all of the players having to be prepared to play every three days, or four. So, it’s been complicated for the guys. But they’ve managed it very well, and I think the group’s kept a great approach and are competing very well. We have a strong squad, one we’re doing well to maintain (in good health).”
Players like Marvin Loría and Renzo Zambrano showed the virtues of that depth on Saturday, each giving stellar performances during the team’s 3-1 win over Vancouver. Bill Tuiloma returned to the starting lineup, too, while Tomás Conechny added an assist off the bench. Though the team needed its depth throughout its time in Minnesota, back at home, that depth truly shined.
There’s no mid-week game between Atlanta’s Sunday visit and Seattle, but that game with the Sounders is on a Friday, meaning Wednesday’s kickoff against Chicago starts a stretch of three games in 10 days. That’s a far easier lift than the Timbers have gotten used to, but when it comes to managing players’ miles, it’s still something to consider.
How hard can Chicago go?
The Fire are dealing with a similarly compacted schedule, sitting in the middle of three games in eight days, only with the heightened demand of mid-week travel. The team will arrive in Portland on Tuesday, play Wednesday, then head back home for a Saturday visit from Philadelphia. For a team that sits three points below their own Eastern Conference playoff line, it’s a hellacious stretch at a terrible time, one that may make head coach Veljko Paunović question whether he can rotate his team in Portland and forgo a chance at points.
Well, “forgo a chance at points” is strong. We’ve seen teams like Orlando come into Providence Park recently and, having to manage their schedule, still get a result. In addition, the Fire may not have to rotate their entire squad. As we’ve seen with the Timbers, some players are able to manage two, three games in a week; others are not. If the Fire have a squad where a handful of players can endure a tough week, it makes it easier to stay competitive for each kickoff.
Much like before each Timbers game, though, from our distance, we can only speculate. We can only know the questions Paunović and his staff will have to ask themselves, before kickoff. How those questions get answered, though, we’ll only know once the lineups are out.