Minnesota United FC hasn’t been a Major League Soccer team long enough to have a deep history with the Portland Timbers, particularly given the teams’ last meeting – a 0-0 draw at Providence Park last September 22 – went straight into the Oxford English Dictionary under “damp squib.” But given the other times MLS has paired the two clubs on significant dates, it’s little wonder that, as it was announced today, Portland and Minnesota will open their 2020 regular seasons against each other.
The March 1, 2020, opponent at Providence Park can’t feel like a surprise. Instead, today’s announcement feels more like an, “of course.”
The Loons started their Major League Soccer journey at Providence Park in 2017 and were handed an immediate drubbing, the type which now feels like it’s from another era. At the time, though, it was the first of many eye-openers for Minnesota fans, whose first impression of their club’s MLS debut left them feeling underwhelmed.
Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri both had braces that day, building an opening goal from future Loons player, then-Timbers player, Lawrence Olum. The 5-1 result may have flattered the Timbers (three goals came after the 81st minute), but it was rude welcome for the Loons, who would go on to lose their home opener the next week, 6-1 to Atlanta United FC. After the first four games of their MLS existence, Minnesota was 0-3-1, had given up 18 goals, and had a minus-12 goal difference.
The mass of goals between the Loons and Timbers, though, foreshadowed the first two years of the teams’ dynamic. When Portland visited the Twin Cities for the first time later that year, the teams scored five times, with the home team pocketing three. Next April, back in Goose Hollow, another five-goal game; another three goals for the home team, who gave new manager Giovanni Savarese a maiden victory in his Providence Park debut. Yet again, when the teams met in Minnesota five months later, it was another 3-2 game; another victory for the home team; another match where the teams seemed to be playing out a tacit agreement to pad each others’ goals columns.
It was the final game of gluttony between the two sides, though – one which ran the teams’ total to 21 goals between them in four matches – but it was also a game that proved a turning point in the Timbers’ 2018 season. Down three goals after 43 minutes, Portland’s attempt to rotate their squad amid a summer’s schedule congestion had backfired, and was compromising their playoff hopes. From that point on, the Timbers settled into a regular lineup, a set formation, and the form they’d carry into the 2018 MLS Cup final. Following that loss in Minnesota, Portland went 5-3-3, but between an end-of-season punt at Vancouver and a playoff “loss” in Seattle that left the Timbers celebrating a conference final berth, Portland wouldn’t leave a field truly disappointed until the season’s last game in Atlanta.
That loss to Minnesota late in 2018, though, started a trend in United’s favor; at least, it started a trend as it concerned the Timbers. When Portland returned to Minnesota last season, they did so on the ascent in the West, but also facing two games in four days. At the weekend, a Timbers team that had just clawed its way back into a playoff spot and still had games in hand on the Western Conference field fell late, when a stoppage-time handball allowed Ethan Finlay to take full points from the spot. Three days later, with a return to Atlanta for a U.S. Open Cup final on the line, Mason Toye was Portland’s undoing, netting a second-half winner to eliminate the Timbers from the competition and send the team home empty handed: five days in Minnesota; two games; no results.
The teams’ final meeting of the 2019 season is the only dud in their history – a 0-0 affair where both playoff contenders seemed too aware of not giving full points to the competition. Before that, though, every game had its payoff, as well as too many goals. Minnesota and Portland will never be rivals, but in terms of a shared history, the two clubs are off to a memorable start.
March 1 will only add to that legacy. For Minnesota, it will be the team’s first chance to build on a breakout season, one that’s seen the club vault out out of its MLS infancy into a world of new expectations. Head coach Adrian Heath will undoubtedly hope to build on last year’s fourth-place Western Conference finish.
For Portland, for the first time in three seasons, it will be a chance to get back to normal. It will be a chance to start the season with something other than an arduous road trip. It will be a chance to move on from a tired, trying 2019.
And, it will be the Timbers’ chance to break their four-game winless run against the Loons.