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“We have to look at one game at a time”: Timbers prepared for CCL battle

The Portland Timbers play their first meaningful soccer game today, and they know it’s not going to be simple.

MLS: Preseason-Portland Timbers at Sporting KC Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Something happened yesterday (or most likely before yesterday) that signaled the start of a new season. After many months of building up to this moment during a seemingly interminable offseason, something that we always knew was coming but might not have been prepared for finally happened:

Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese shaved his beard.

“I had a plan for all this time, as soon as we were ready to travel to Honduras, to be able to take the beard out,” Savarese said. “And now we are ready to compete.”

Yes, the beard removal wasn’t just a strategic move done in the name of dealing with the hot weather of Honduras. It was a symbolic gesture; one that athletes and coaches tend to do when some type of marker of the season has been reached. Like when the Vatican uses the white smoke to signal that a new pope has been chosen, the shaving of Savarsese’s beard means Timbers soccer is officially back.

Today at 3 p.m. on FS1, we’ll get to see the Timbers play the first of two matches in the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League tournament against CD Marathon. It’s a matchup that Savarese and crew aren’t taking lightly. Something that Savarese emphasized on Friday was that while Marathon has struggled in Honduran league play (they’re last in their group at the moment), they play a very specific style of play that makes them challenging to account for.

“Marathon has a very unique way of playing,” Savarese said. “They believe in their system. They want to be pragmatic. They like to play very direct, and they do it with purpose. So it’s going to be a difficult match. We need to make sure that we concentrate on those details in the way they play, and we have done a lot of work to make sure that we’re prepared for those things.”

It won’t be an easy task. One of the biggest advantages that Marathon has over the Timbers is that they’re already in a rhythm with their season in full swing. Portland have some preseason games under their belt, but this is the first meaningful match they’ll have played since 2020. Midfielder Diego Valeri noted that it’s something the Timbers will have to overcome.

“The biggest challenge is to play in the way with the rhythm that it needs to be played,” Valeri said. “How you can manage the rhythm of the game and sustain during 90 minutes and take advantage as quick as you can in the game to dominate the pace.”

Valeri also expounded the importance of playing efficiently. That is advice that comes from experience. Valeri has played with two Timbers squads that have made the CCL before, but they’ve never played in the Round of 16. With the elimination system set up in this first round, Valeri noted that the club has to be able to find ways to put their imprint on the game.

“It depends on the strategy you have on the game, trying to execute that,” Valeri said. “You have to be tough to break through. You have to defend well, and then being efficient in the moments, you are having chances or good moments in the game.”

Who’s out there to employ the strategy will be something worth monitoring. Savarese noted that Sebastian Blanco — who traveled with the team to Honduras — is getting closer and closer to being able to actually play in a game. While Savarese wouldn’t elaborate much beyond saying Blanco would “possibly” out tomorrow, it is likely that we won’t see Seba out there for this first match. However, he is training with the team and getting closer.

“Seba is getting closer,” Savarese said. “He’s now joining training and very soon we’ll see him back with the team playing matches.”

Blanco’s return is something of the future, and right now the Timbers have to focus on the present. They will be the first MLS team to play this season and have a chance to get U.S. teams off to a good start with a win. Savarese noted that the dream, of course, would be to make a deep run, pointing to LAFC’s success in last year’s tournament as proof that MLS teams can seriously compete. But for now, Portland’s focus is solely on handling Marathon in Honduras before returning to Providence Park.

“The important part is we have to look one game at a time,” Savarese said. “I think the first leg is always a complicated one, and then after that we’ll concentrate for what we have to do in Portland. We’re not thinking about the game in Portland. We’re only thinking about this match and trying to get the best result possible, and we know it’s going to be a difficult match.”