In a little more than 24 hours, playoff soccer in MLS will be back. After finishing up the season two weeks ago, everyone in MLS has had time to either recuperate and get healthy or go play for their respective international teams. It’s a sort of calm before the storm — a few moments of tranquility and rest before the start of what everyone is gunning for.
“For me, it’s the best part of the season,” Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri said. “It’s the most exciting. You are a couple of steps away from another final, from another trophy, and that’s very exciting for every single one of us.”
It truly is the best part of the year, and we’re getting it despite the improbability of being able to play soccer at all in 2020. After the season was shut down back in March, things were bleak. Even after Portland took home the trophy from the MLS is Back Tournament in August, there were questions about what would happen for the regular season. Then, once the regular season was restarted, there were several bumps in the road, including having to change the playoff format to points per game to accommodate for COVID-affected teams.
Now, here in November, the Timbers are poised to play a new opponent for the first time in months on Sunday against FC Dallas. That’s a full two weeks of rest for the club, which is extremely helpful in a year with such a condensed schedule. It wasn’t lost on Valeri how different this year was compared to others:
“It was a unique season because we played so many games in a short period of time,” Valeri said. “It’s just weird to play so many games and in the way we travel for the games and way we set up for all the games.”
It was a lot of games to fit into just a few months, with every team having stretches where they were playing a match every three days or so. That’s why these past two weeks have been critical for Portland. It’s the most time they’ve had to recharge and scout in what feels like forever. They’re not expecting this upcoming match — and any matches that may follow — to be givens, and having this time to rest has been key.
“Once we came back, our training was very, very good and we were able to recuperate really fast,” said Yimmi Chara through a translator. “We know that these upcoming games are not going to be easy, but we as soccer players are prepared for any changes.”
One of the big changes for Sunday? A new opponent. MLS went regional when deciding who would play whom in the restart, which meant that the Timbers never got the chance to play FC Dallas. Because Dallas also didn’t play in the MLS is Back Tournament in the summer, it’s the first time these two teams will face off in 2020.
That’s a very weird thing to have happen, especially between opponents in the same conference. That uniqueness is not lost on Valeri and, while he doesn’t think that’s necessarily a disadvantage considering the two squads’ past matchups and scouting, he acknowledges that it’s a strange situation.
“It’s weird because we got used to playing with these same teams during this last period of the season, so it’s going to be weird,” Valeri said. “As a professional, we have to prepare for the game based on what we watch on film from their games, and there’s a lot about that.”
“Weird” is the word that describes just about everything with MLS in 2020. It’s weird that the season had to stop because of a pandemic, and it somehow feels even weirder that MLS was able to restart the season in the midst of it. Now we’re approaching the playoffs with the coronavirus threat at its most dire. Despite it all, here we are, getting ready for playoff soccer.