Tomorrow we’ll have the chance to watch the Portland Timbers play a real, meaningful game of soccer. We won’t have to scroll through our Twitter feeds trying to parse together some idea of who scored and which Timber is best in seasons that begin with a prefix (the answer is always Dairon Asprilla). Instead, we’ll get to watch the Timbers play real soccer tomorrow at 3 p.m. (on FS1, for those wondering).
For this first match of their Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League run, they’re in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, for their matchup against CD Marathon. Marathon is a team that has struggled as of late, as our own Sam Svilar pointed out with his most recent article. They’re last in their group in Honduran league play, only winning twice and posting a -5 goal differential. But the Timbers know a team doesn’t make the CCL for no reason.
“Marathon is a team that has been struggling in their season in Honduras, but if you watch the matches, they have been always competitive,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “They have a style of play that they believe in; they’re all very much engaged to that style of play, and it’s complicated.”
How is it complicated? Per Savarese, Marathon is a team that likes to pressure opponents. They are most likely going to run at the Timbers and try to make life difficult as Portland take the ball downfield, and they aren’t afraid to get into one-on-one matchups. It’s a special style of play that Savarese has been working to break down for his club.
“We have done a lot of videos and studies and research and showing the players and planning to make sure that the players have their ideas very clear,” Savarese said. “We know that these couple teams in Central America — South America as well — it’s always complicated because this tournament gives them the opportunity to show that they are competitive.”
Savarese noted that the reason above makes Marathon all the more dangerous. He noted that teams like Marathon, who have struggled during their league season, pose a threat to teams like Portland. Taking on the underdog mentality could allow Marathon to sneak up on the Timbers.
Portland have been in this position before. The last time they played in the CCL, they lost to Deportivo Saprissa, a club from Costa Rica, who also will feature in this year’s tournament. Midfielder Diego Chara was on both the 2016 squad and the 2014 one that lost in the group stage, and he knows what Portland can do this year to ensure the same mistakes don’t occur.
“It’s very important to be focused during the game, during the 90-plus minutes,” Chara said. “Because in the previous games we played in Concacaf, I think we made a lot of mistakes, and we didn’t focus all the time, giving chances to the other team ... I think we need to learn from those experiences.”
Focusing for the whole 90 minutes should be a top priority. Not to beat a dead horse, but in case you hadn’t heard, Portland struggled with that last year. They gave up 15 goals in the final 15 minutes of games last season, which led MLS. A late goal forced the Timbers into penalties in their first round match against FC Dallas in the 2020 MLS Playoffs. When thinking about starting points for where the Timbers could improve, that has to be the start.
The CCL gives the Timbers a chance to start the season off on the right foot. They have retained most of the squad from last year with some new additions on the outside in defenders Josecarlos Van Rankin and Claudio Bravo. They also announced some new signings in defender Ismalia “Ish” Jome and midfielder Jorge Gonzalez, who will be on loan with Louisville City FC this season. Even though Gonzalez won’t join Portland, adding Jome gives the Timbers some much-needed depth at fullback.
“The strength of this group is the group,” Savarese said about his squad. “I know the individuals ... we have good players; we have players that when they recover, they will make us a better team, but the strength of the group continues to be the group.”
On Friday, when Chara and Savarese spoke to media, it happened to be Yimmi Chara’s birthday. Today also happens to be Diego’s birthday. Nick Krupke of KPTV asked Diego last Friday what the big gift would be for his brother. He mentioned an attempt at making practice that day something special, but Diego noted that the best gift he could probably give him was as follows:
“But I feel the best gift to give to him, I think, is to win on Tuesday,” Diego said. I think that would be a great gift for both the Charas and Timbers fans alike.