At long last, the full 34-game MLS regular season schedule for the Portland Timbers has been released.
We now know just how many times Portland will play on national television (at least ten), how many annoying midweek games we’ll have to deal with (ugh nine), and how many times we’ll play those annoying folks from that fishy town up north (three — twice at home!).
Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the gauntlet of games the Timbers will be facing this year:
Farewell Eastern Conference
It appears that the days of a somewhat MLS schedule may be starting to be a thing of the past. In a move that is meant to limit travel to a) lower the risk for players during the pandemic, b) keep costs low as all teams will be flying charter flights for games as per the CBA, or c) both, the league has maintained the more regionalized opponent structure from the 2020 season.
In a move that could be a harbinger of schedule structures in the future, Portland’s opponents this year will almost exclusively be Western Conference teams. Portland only plays two Eastern Conference teams this year, and travels to the east coast only once. They get that trip — in which they play defending Supporter’s Shield winners the Philadelphia Union — out of the way early, and thankfully don’t have to travel east of the Mississippi River at all after May 30.
Their other Eastern Conference game will be a home bout against Inter Miami CF, they of the “how in the world do you not have a primary pink jersey, you’re in Miami and it’s in your own dang logo” fame. They technically were a playoff team last year, but Miami did not impress by any definition: they barely squeaked into the postseason only to be unceremoniously clobbered by Nashville SC. That, combined with the fact that the Union lost many key pieces this offseason, means that Portland’s two-game Eastern Conference slate is fairly manageable all things considered.
What may be harder to manage, however, are the other 32 games on the docket. Because the Timbers are going to have to be ready to say...
Hello, fightin’ Matthew McConaughy’s (and a whole lot of six pointers).
Just like the number of times Austin FC’s highest profile owner likes to say “Alright”, Portland will have to play MLS’ newest boys three times in 2021. Twice they will have to travel to Q2 Stadium in Texas, both times in the heat of summer, which is a pretty brutal trip to have to make. Portland will also be facing Austin at home on the final day of the regular season, so we better get used to seeing those water bottle company emblazoned jerseys this year.
Jokes aside, the fact that Austin FC appears three times on the schedule is representative of a larger and more important trend: Portland will be facing a whole lot of Western Conference rivals this year.
That fact ups the stakes for pretty much every match. The old adage of games against direct playoff rivals being “six pointers” in the standings will start to apply a lot earlier in the season than usual, and it means that we may be in for some topsy-turvy league tables this year.
It also means that the Timbers may not be able to afford to overlook many opponents. Teams like to posture that they take every opponent seriously, but when they send a reserve laden side to play a midweek game in Montreal before a key in conference clash at home on the weekend, know where their priorities really lie.
Portland might not be able to make many of those calculations this year, if at all. Even early season games may wind up carrying additional weight this year when the final standings are decided. So the Timbers, who are notorious slow-starters, will have to come into the season focused and prepared. Especially when considering their having to juggle CONCACAF Champions League games, and potentially a trip to the Estadio Azteca in late spring.
It’s hard to say when exactly the scope of Portland’s season will crystalize exactly, but I suppose that if you want to get a good sense, you can expect that...
We’ll know a lot by October
If you want to highlight a key stretch on your calendar, it’s August 15 to September 25. During that stretch, Portland will be just wrapping up a three-game homestand by playing the Seattle Sounders, and then will hit the road for five straight matches. That stretch wraps up with another three-game homestand — all aforementioned games against teams that figure to be in the playoff hunt rival Portland.
It’s impossible to identify a season-defining period for a year this early, but that one comes pretty dang close. It’s a brutal stretch that will take the Timbers away from the confines of Providence Park (which now we know will mean away from an actual in-person fanbase) for just about four weeks, and will put added pressure on the home games, pending the results from the road trip.
Portland faced a similar stretch in 2019 during the Providence Park renovation, and their inability to find a strong home form late that year was one of the things that doomed them to an early playoff exit that year. Considering that this year that key stretch comes at right about the time when Timbers teams have a late summer swoon and start tumbling down the table, the pressure will be on them to break that cycle and perform.
How the Timbers come out of that stretch will say a lot about how their season will close out. Will they be comfortably in the playoff spots, and playing to clinch a high seed? Or will they instead be yo-yoing around the red line, just fighting for playoff survival? By that point, Portland should have Jaroslaw Niezgoda back from injury and be at full strength. So we’ll know a lot by the fall of just what kind of season 2021 is turning out to be for the Timbers.
What do you think? What are your biggest takeaways from the schedule drop? Let me hear it in the comments!