SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — It’s natural to focus on physical preparation when thinking about a sports team’s preseason. But for groups whose schedules create a regular, predictable flow to their weeks — teams like those in the National Football League, who build for the weekend; or professional soccer teams, whose weekly rhythms can be similar — sinking into, and mastering, a year’s patterns is important, too.
Consider the first week of the Portland Timbers’ preseason through that lens. The team enjoyed their first training sessions of 2020 Monday through Wednesday. The double session on Tuesday may have been a uniquely preseason thing — one that was replicated again on Thursday — but Friday’s day off wasn’t. Regular season weeks don’t always such breaks, but they often do, be they for travel or rest.
Come Saturday, head coach Giovanni Savarese’s group was back on the field at their training center in Beaverton, Oregon, ahead of what, on Sunday, would normally be the week’s culmination. So early in their preparation, the Timbers didn’t have a conventional game, but the day’s intersquad scrimmage helped fill out the week’s pattern. Players stretched together but soon broke into two groups, finishing their pregame warmups among ad hoc teams. Forty-five minute halves would have been too much for the first week, but the time the players were on the field was treated like a match. No breaks for instructions. Each side getting one of the team’s assistants as manager. Other staff taking up the roles of the official and his assistants.
All of which brought the team to Monday, and their first travel day of the season – something that characterizes life in Major League Soccer as much as any league in the world. Before 6:00 a.m., players were arriving at the training center, ready to catch a bus to the airport, or heading to Portland International on their own. Between shuttles, layovers and flights, 13 hours of travel awaited. An hour-and-a-half flight to Los Angeles, then five-and-a-half hours to Costa Rica’s capital, where the team will spend two weeks. It’s longer than the largest trip the Timbers would make during a regular season, but not by much. In the end, the two weeks players will spend in the country’s capital, San José, between flights will be a prolonged reminder of their lives during the season, when commitments pulse between home and road.
This type of reminder can be an important part of players’ preseasons. Older players on Portland’s roster — veterans like Diego Chara, Steve Clark, Diego Valeri and Larrys Mabiala — will quickly adjust, but that adjustment still needs to happen. Particularly after an early-playoff exits, with the over three months away from games that followed, time with family, be it at home or on the road, could start to feel too normal. As with the rest of us, players’ time away from their jobs can feel like a reprieve. Still, most of our realities are tied to our jobs.
As much as that reality is defined by the rhythms of life at the training center, it’s also defined by trips like this one. Monday’s life took the team from Portland to Los Angeles, then Los Angeles to San José, where hotel rooms and roommates will be players’ lives for two weeks. They’ll return home wanting, almost forlorn, with the novelty of the trip having worn off long before. A return to families and friends will dominate their minds, but only after players have space to focus on their new project — the 2020 campaign — the new co-workers who signed on in the months before, and the new expectations for the coming season.
Coincidentally, when it comes to this year’s Timbers, part of those expectations are settling into a better rhythm. 2019’s preseason involved a month on the road – two weeks in Costa Rica, followed by two weeks in Tucson, Arizona. Perhaps that was the best plan for the time, with the team facing 12-straight games on the road to start their season, but there was no rhythm to be had. There was no balance. Every week was about the small bursts needed to cope with so many flights, airports, and nights in hotels. When the road spell ended, the team was rewarded with an extended time at home – better, but again, not the reality of their normal existence.
When Portland returns home this year, they’ll have a fortnight in the Rose City, within which they’ll play their three-game, preseason tournament (Feb. 16, 19, 22 | TICKETS). After that, another two weeks in town, albeit with a slightly different rhythm, one that will build toward March 1’s season opening game against Minnesota United FC, at home (4:30pm PT | TICKETS). After that, another home game, then the balance is restored. Two games on the road, and over the next five weeks, alternating games between road and home. It doesn’t alternate perfectly, but in the team’s early schedule is a hint: 2020 should give Portland a normal tension between home and road.
Perhaps, from an American sports’ perspective, Costa Rica is a more uncommon location than most, but in returning here for the second-straight year, the Timbers are getting back to something common. There and back, back and forth, is the normal for players’ seasons, as well as their lives in Major League Soccer. Just as their bodies need to be prepped, so too do their mentalities for the 2020 season.