Today marks the beginning of a difficult stretch for the Portland Timbers. Tonight they face off against Club America, a Liga MX side that has been the most successful club in the Concacaf Champion’s League competition with seven titles. This isn’t like the CD Marathon matchup: Portland are coming into this first leg as the clear underdogs, unlikely to cruise into an easy 7-2 aggregate victory like they did in the Round of 16. It’s a daunting challenge, and it’s not one that the Timbers are taking lightly.
“You play to compete in these kinds of matches,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said about playing Club America. “You want to earn the opportunity to play and be part of these games against teams like Club America. We know that they are a good team; they have a good roster, they’ve been very competitive ... in the Liga MX, and we know they’re coming with the best team.”
“It’s extra motivation to play against big clubs like Club America, especially when you start at home, being able to be at home in front of our fans,” Timbers forward Felipe Mora said. “We just need to be ready and make sure we’re prepared for this big game.”
But Wednesday is more than just one game: It’s the beginning of a tight string of games that will test the Timbers’ endurance at a difficult time. Portland will play America today, FC Dallas on Saturday, and then America again next Wednesday before playing the Seattle Sounders next Sunday. That’s four games over 12 days, and it’s not going to be easy to come out with all positive results.
The good news going into this match? Portland have done it before. Last year’s condensed schedule due to the COVID-19-impacted season meant the Timbers were playing stretches with a game every three days or so constantly. Savarese acknowledged that that should help them going into this long stretch, but they are still operating with one disadvantage: a lack of depth due to injuries.
“I think that the fact that we had to handle that situation last year in 2020, those consecutive matches, and the fact that we had a deep bench definitely prepared us for these types of matches being consecutive,” Savarese said. “The only difference is we don’t have the depth that we had last year because we still have players that are recovering.”
Yes, some key Timbers are still on the mend in terms of recovery. Jeremy Ebobisse is close to returning, but will be out. While Savarese acknowledged that Sebastian Blanco was close, he said that he is not as close as expected; while he is listed as questionable, it would be a shock to see him on the pitch tonight. Savarese did note, however, that Andy Polo is officially back and expected to contribute in the coming matches.
Even though the team will have Polo back, the reality remains that they aren’t at full strength heading into a match against one of the toughest opponents they’ll face in both CCL and MLS play. However, it does make it more meaningful that they got three points against the Houston Dynamo with a mostly rotated squad. It gave guys a chance to not worry about recovering too quickly, resting them for tonight. Now they just have to come out with the same energy they did against Marathon to give themselves a chance of moving on in CCL.
“One of the characteristics of this team is the energy that we bring together,” Mora said. “We’re looking forward to the first game and hopefully we can bring the same energy.”
Savarese and Mora believe the Timbers can handle this stretch. Whether or not they actually will do so remains to be seen.