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The Timbers’ first test of 2021? Avoid getting CONCACAF’d

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Despite being the favorite on paper, Portland’s first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League will still be fraught.

PORTLAND TIMBERS / CRAIG MITCHELLDYER

If you’ve been watching MLS and North American soccer enough, it’s a verb that has been burned into your lexicon. It has been the bane of every MLS team that has ever attempted to win the current version of the CONCACAF Champions League. It’s something that’s impossible to exactly describe, yet you know it immediately when you see it.

It’s “getting CONCACAF’d.” And it’s the first pitfall of 2021 that the Portland Timbers will have to be on the lookout for.

When the Timbers step into San Pedro Sula next Tuesday to play their first leg matchup against CD Marathon in the CONCACAF Champions League, they should be seen as the favorite. Marathon has won only once in the 2021 Honduran Liga SalvaVida Clausura, and that was back in February. They currently sit third in their group of five, but with the worst form out of their opponents.

Portland, on the other hand, enters the match with a roster built on experience and continuity, and more top-end talent in the squad than Marathon. Despite just finishing up their preseason preparations, the Timbers, on paper, are in a better place than their Honduran opponents.

But entering into a game in Central America as a favorite should give you no added confidence — especially when the specter of getting CONCACAF’d is just lying in wait.

“Getting CONCACAF’d” is best defined as the utterly unbelievable conflation of misfortune that conspires (usually against MLS sides) to knock teams out of regional competitions — in this case, the CONCACAF Champions League.

An amazing comeback from an outgunned Central American side? CONCACAF’d. The referee missing a blatantly obvious red card offense? CONCACAF’d. A solid squad that, on paper, should win but blows it? Yep, that’s getting CONCACAF’d.

The history of MLS sides in the CCL have been defined by this very concept. Take Toronto FC in 2018 for an example. Perhaps one of the best MLS sides ever assembled, they had made it all the way to the final of the CCL against Chivas de Guadalejara that year, and had as good of chance as any team to win it. Despite high hopes, that game wound up being just another chapter of heartbreak:

That one had all the hallmarks: giving up an early goal, somehow fighting back, incredulously missing a sitter at the death, and losing in penalty kicks by way of the worst spot-kick ever by Michael Bradley.

Another time that carried all the hallmarks was just last year, when LAFC was in the CCL final against Tigres. LAFC took the lead with a half hour left and looked destined to finally break MLS’s CCL duck. What followed was Tigres scoring two goals in the final twenty minutes, denying MLS yet again.

The road in the CCL is littered with teams getting knocked out in the most heartbreaking and incredulous of ways. But the Timbers may not need examples — they’ve experienced it themselves.

Back in 2014, Portland was in their first-ever CCL campaign. It was the final game of the group stage, and Portland was playing, ironically enough, Honduran side CD Olimpia. The game was in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, and all the Timbers needed was a positive result to go through the knockout stages. Or, at the very worst, a loss by no more than two goals. A pretty advantageous situation, right?

Well:

The match ended 3-1 in favor of Olimpia. They scored two goals in the first five minutes, and the Timbers lost by the exact margin that would have eliminated them. Just like that, the Timbers were knocked out. Despite being in a good position, the double misfortune of giving up early worldies, combined with the hostile and incredibly difficult away environment, meant that Portland was brutally and unceremoniously dumped from CCL play.

Advancing past CD Marathon is not a given. Yes, it is an advantageous draw for the Timbers. But getting a result in San Pedro Sula is just by nature a difficult proposition. Marathon being in poor form does not necessarily mean that Portland will just be able to waltz in and snag a victory. Their Honduran foes will surely be up for the game, and so the Timbers will have to be ready to play from the first minute.

Acting against them as well will be that ever-present malicious force known as “getting CONCACAF’d” that has plagued other teams, and the Timbers themselves, in the past. If the Timbers want to back up their claims and make a run in the CCL, when they step on the field in Honduras they’ll have to be ready for any crazy eventuality to occur. Because odds are, it probably will.