PORTLAND, Ore. – It’s game three of their 10-game homestand, and already the Portland Timbers are in position to do some major damage to the MLS standings.
Before Sunday’s kickoff, last year’s Western Conference champions sit seventh in their conference, having just moved above the West’s playoff line with a mid-week win over Chicago. Should they add another three points this weekend, Portland could move above another line, the one that separates home field advantage in Round 1 from those who’ll start the playoffs on the road. Not bad for August 18 after spending three months on the road.
Of course, that’s a best-case scenario, one with a pretty substantial obstacle in the way. It’s the same one that stopped the Timbers’ MLS Cup run last season; the same one which, for a third straight season, is threatening at the top of the Eastern Conference. Atlanta United FC is trying to make their own move up the standings, hoping to close the three-point gap that separates them from East-leading Philadelphia. With a loss, though, the Five Stripes risk losing touch of the Union with eight matches to go.
Those are the stakes before Sunday’s kickoff (7pm PT, TICKETS, FS1). Here is he KeyBank Scouting Report:
It’d be too much to suggest Atlanta and Portland have been waiting for the rematch – United had two significant departures this offseason in Miguel Almirón and head coach Gerardo Martino, while the Timbers were looking to build into the second year of the Giovanni Savarese era – but given the way Major League Soccer’s schedule works, these meetings will always be special. Teams from the Eastern Conference only play the West’s clubs once per season, meaning unless U.S. Open Cup breaks the right way (and it almost did, this year), fans can circle a Cup rematch when the schedule’s released, knowing that will be the next time their team gets another crack at the matchup.
For Atlanta’s part, they’ve lost last year’s best player (Almirón) and brought in a coach that has given the Five Stripes a distinctly different look. Players have chafed at Frank de Boer’s style, occasionally doing so verbally and publicly, but the team’s in a strong position. Only three points back of first, Atlanta’s navigated their post-title phase better than most.
As for the Timbers, there was no Brian Fernandez in the team last December at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Jorge Moreira arrived in the intervening time, too. In players like Steve Clark, Julio Cascante and Cristhian Paredes, Portland has seen new faces seize starting roles, and while talents like Pity Martinez, Miles Robinson and Justin Meram have done the same for Atlanta, the champions’ task was to maintain their course. At least in terms of their talent on the field, Portland seems to have taken a step forward.
That’s usually the case when you compare an aspiring champion to a defending one, but it also highlights why the summer of 2019 can’t mimic the winter of 2018. Both teams have been forced to move on. Both teams will have a slightly different look when they kickoff off at Providence Park.
A favorite’s return
Had Sunday’s game taken place last year, there would have been an entirely different feel to Darlington Nagbe’s return. Back then, there was still uncertainty as to how the team might replace him, and as one of the club’s consistent presences since their arrival in MLS, Nagbe’s departure still felt too new. You can’t have a favorite son and, just because he’s gone, not call him your son.
This return feels different. Nagbe’s found success in Atlanta, and as The Internet™ (and, his play in the Campeones Cup) reminded us on Wednesday, he still has stretches where his skills can be dominant. He’s still one of the best connecting forces in MLS. He still takes care of the ball better than anybody else.
He also helped Portland move forward. The haul of Allocation Money Gavin Wilkinson got in his trade transformed the Timbers from a top-heavy club, talent-wise, to one of the deepest teams in MLS. Although it’s difficult to draw a straight line from those resources to players like Parades and Cascante, the trade allowed Portland to move in a direction that made the team markedly younger, and markedly deeper.
All sides won in the deal: Atlanta, Portland, and Nagbe himself. It allows a favored son’s return to have unambiguously positive feel.
Obligatory section: The load
Let’s try something different, this time. For too many games this summer, you’ve had to read different words arranged in new ways, all saying the same thing: Fatigue will be a factor in the next game. Even if players aren’t actually tired, managing their mileage will be a consideration, if not an outright factor, in the night’s lineup.
So instead of going over the whys, whats and hows, let’s just look at some numbers. Here is every player’s minute load since two Sundays ago, when Portland started this five-match-in-15-days stretch in Minnesota:
Perhaps even more important than those numbers: Atlanta is in a similar situation, if not slightly worse. They had to play last weekend. They had to play on Wednesday, too. But whereas Savarese had the luxury of managing his team’s recovery at home, United had to get on a plane, fly cross country, and move on from a mid-week match that saw the team go all out against Club América.
Just like midweek, Portland will facing an opponent that has their own schedule issues. And just like midweek, it’s an open question as to how hard, with travel in between, that team can push its talent.