ORLANDO, Fla. – Nothing can feel truly normal inside a facility being maintained amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, but as it concerns getting back to Major League Soccer action, the Portland Timbers took a step toward normalcy on Monday night.
That’s when the team started its training session, its third since traveling to Orlando, Florida, with a particularly late kickoff: 9:30 p.m. Eastern time. Instead of players arriving at the ABC Wide World of Sports Complex in matching practice gear, the Timbers were divided beforehand into teams of green and grey. Seven days out from their MLS Is Back Tournament opening game against the LA Galaxy (July 13, 7:30pm PT, FS1), Portland tried to maintain as much of a gameday atmosphere as possible on Monday, including playing full-speed, 11-on-11 soccer for much of the night’s session.
“We wanted to have 11 [versus] 11,” head coach Giovanni Savarese’s explanation began, “because besides seeing some different things that we wanted to see – some different partnerships on the field – we wanted to make sure that we had minutes playing 11 [versus] 11 for the guys to continue to build up their stamina.
“The great part is, the weather has been very good, at this time of the day,” he said, pausing slightly before offering that final caveat. “The afternoon is very humid, but at this time, it is perfect for us to be able to get the best out of [the players].”
The best and the most, as it turned out. Soon after the full session’s kickoff, evidence of Orlando’s humidity was clear on jerseys soaked tight onto players’ torsos. Within minutes, players had adjusted to the demands of Central Florida, embracing the reality of summer in Orlando. By session’s end, the Timbers’ were depleted, destined for quick and heavy slumber once back at their hotel.
“We wanted to get some 11s in in the heat and the humidity and also continue our preparation for the Galaxy,” goalkeeper Steve Clark said, alluding to a July 13 match which will have a West-Coast focused kickoff. “It was a little unique to play at game time, but there are a lot of unique things going on. So, we’re embracing it.”
Part of that embrace is the start of a normal game week’s preparation, which under normal circumstances begins with the previous week’s game. That’s what Monday became. On Tuesday, the Timbers enjoyed their first off-day in Orlando, with player treatment scheduled around a team golf outing as well as scattered media commitments. Come Wednesday, the ramp up to next Monday’s game begins in earnest, with a return to the field accompanied by the drills which, evolving over the week, feed into the team’s next tactical approach.
“[We’re] definitely in a good place to have a good match against [the Galaxy] ...,” was Savarese’s Monday night assessment, when asked about his team’s level.
“Everyone wants to make it difficult for me to make selections, and right now, the guys are doing very well,” Savarese said. “Especially in a tournament like this, you’re going to need everybody. So it is fundamental that everybody is available and ready to be able to perform … guys are being engaged and making sure that they bring a different level.”
Despite making the buildup to Monday as familiar as possible, the unique circumstances of the MLS Is Back Tournament – the “like this” Savarese alluded to – mean this week may be the Timbers’ last typical one for a while. There are only five days between the Galaxy game and Portland’s second match, against the Houston Dynamo. Five days after that, the Timbers face Los Angeles FC, and depending on where Portland finishes in Group F, the team could have as few as two days off before a knockout-round matchup.
“[The Galaxy are] going to be in a similar situation, because they’re going to be doing the exact same thing that we have been doing,” Savarese said. “This will be a real match, meaning we haven’t played against anybody but ourselves, so far. The Galaxy will be the first opposition after this crazy moment that we’ve had to pass through with COVID. I’m very, very proud of the guys in the way they’ve conducted themselves on the field and out of the field.”
And in terms of that on field product, there was at least some reason to think the team’s in a better place than when it last took the field.
“We’re certainly ahead of where we were in March,” Clark said. “I feel really good about it. Maybe I should speak to me, personally. I feel better than I did in March. But the team looks fine. We’ve had a long time to prepare. I think the guys are really more mentally excited to play after the long layoff.”