On Wednesday, we learned of Portland’s path in the gauntlet that is the 2021 Concacaf Champions League. With the team’s stated intent of doing well in the competition (Merritt Paulson really wants to be the first MLS team to win the current version of the CCL, y’all), these will be games the coaching staff and players will be up for. Plus, they’ll be the first time we get to see our boys in green play soccer in 2021, so we should probably get excited about them too.
So let’s take a look at how Portland’s first round matchup, their potential path to the final, and the schedule of the tournament all play into the Timbers’ chance of success in the continent:
The CD Marathon Matchup: Stay wary
Now, on paper, the Timbers should be able to get past CD Marathon in their round of 16 matchup.
Portland is much deeper team than Marathon, with more proven top-end talent than the known players on Marathon’s roster. In addition, the Honduran side is not a historical Champions League powerhouse, and hasn’t been in the competition in over a decade.
Based on financial support, roster talent, and competitiveness of the leagues they play in, the Timbers have to be considered the favorite in their matchup against CD Marathon.
Again, on paper. Which means just about nothing in Concacaf.
The CCL (SCCL? How are we abbreviating this one?) is a competition that is defined by unpredictability. Take the random chaos of the MLS playoffs, turn it up to eleven, and add a dash of bad on-field play acting and incredulous refereeing and you have the insanity that is the Concacaf Champions League.
The Timbers have experienced this directly in the past, when in 2014 they entered the final game of the CCL group stage needing anything more than a two-goal loss against CD Olimipia (another Honduran side) to win the group and advance to the knockout round. In true Concacaf fashion, Portland was down 2-0 within the first five minutes, and wound up falling 3-1, inflicting a shock but very on-brand departure from the competition.
So Portland has quite literally experienced disappointment in Honduras before, and they should be prepared for that possibility again. Marathon are not the strongest opponents they could have faced, but they do pose a danger, nonetheless. Advancing past them in the round of 16 should be the expectation, but not taken for granted at all.
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The Bracket: Estadio Azteca looms
All things being equal, drawing CD Marathon for their first opponent wasn’t the worst thing for the Timbers. They could have drawn a Liga MX team right off the back like Club Leon, or be facing off against the always tricky Costa Rican side Saprissa (like cough someone incorrectly predicted that they would).
But if Portland can make it past the first round, they potentially have one of the giants of the region standing in their way.
Based on the bracket and how the draw broke down, Portland finds itself in the same quarter of the bracket as Mexican powerhouse Club America. The Liga MX side needs to make it past CD Olimpia, and stranger things have happened (see previous statement about Honduran Concacaf-ing), but all odds point towards them reaching the quarterfinals.
America — arguably the most popular and highest-profile team in North America — have won Liga MX a whopping 13 times, more than any other club. They’ve also won the Concacaf Champions League twice, most recently in 2016. They’re about as close to the cream of the crop as they come in the CCL.
A difficult opponent in their own right, the Club America matchup would also carry the added weight of the history between MLS and Liga MX in the champions league. Since 2008, MLS sides are just 9-28 against Mexican opposition in the CCL, so the odds are already against the Timbers should they have to make the journey to Estadio Azteca. Portland also has never faced a Liga MX side in champions league competition, so it really is an unknown how they would fare.
If they make it past Club America (knocks on all the wood) though? Then the bracket is interesting. Portland’s potential semifinal opponent could either be a Costa Rican side, or another MLS side. Again, nothing is easy in Concacaf, but either of those options are much more winnable than facing another Liga MX side. Portland could potentially face a manageable path to the final if they make the semifinal round (again, knock on all the wood). But they would need to overcome the looming giant of Club America first.
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The Schedule: Could you have waited a month or two?
This is maybe one of the biggest and most constant criticisms of how MLS sets up its teams for champions league play: The league’s regular season schedule. With the start date usually set in early spring (now mid-spring in April for the 2021 season), MLS is already a month of two behind its main rivals, Liga MX. Case in point: The Mexican league has already played five weeks of regular season matches, and training camps have yet to open for MLS sides.
In fact, based on the dates of their two-leg series against CD Marathon (April 6-15), the Timbers will already have their Round of 16 matchup all done and dusted before they even play a regular season MLS game. The timing of the CCL start dates, along with the start dates of rival leagues, means that Portland will enter the Champions League at a relative competitive disadvantage, born by lack of recent high-level match experience.
The timing of the Champions League rounds also poses a challenge unique to the Portland Timbers, and that is the injuries to two major players. Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda are still on the mend from serious knee injuries, and both factor to be key contributors to Portland’s roster this season. The team is hopeful that Blanco will be back and ready in time for the start of the CCL and regular season, but that is no guarantee. Nor is it guaranteed what form he will be in, and whether he will be ready to be thrown into the fire of international competition.
Niezgoda’s timeline is even longer. Most reports suggest that the forward won’t make his return to the team until June at the earliest, meaning he will miss both the round of 16 and potential quarterfinal rounds. With one key contributor being out and another just coming back from a major injury, Portland is decidedly not at full strength entering the CCL.
Portland does have a good degree of proven depth that it can lean on however, as head coach Giovanni Savarese sighted in his post-draw presser (also — peep that beard):
Portland is back in the big intercontinental dance for the first time in five years, and they have made it known that they want to do well. They have made moves this offseason to bolster their depth in preparation, and because of that they can potentially see a path to the final (one more time, knock on all the wood).
Those depth pieces will be the key for the team in this competition. With the threat of getting “Concacaf’d”, the looming specter of a strong Liga MX opponent, and complicated timing of the matches not being in their favor, it will take everyone on the roster contributing for the Timbers to be successful in the CCL.