Today’s the day. Today will be remembered as either the day the Portland Timbers got knocked out of the 2021 Concacaf Champions League competition — or the day they pulled off an incredible upset over one of Concacaf’s giants in Club America at Estadio Azteca, one of the most legendary venues to win at. If they lose, it stings. But if they win, it’ll feel so, so good.
The enormity of this match is not something that’s lost on the Timbers. Portland Head Coach Giovanni Savarese is acutely aware of how impactful it would be for the Timbers to move on to the semifinals. Beating Club America would give the Timbers — and U.S. soccer in general — a real opportunity to show how far they have come.
“We feel that going through a club like Club America will give us the certainty that we are definitely building as a club, as a league, as a country in soccer,” Savarese said. “And that’s the responsibility that we have. And yes, even though we would like to win because no MLS [team] has won this competition, we have to go one game at a time, especially when you play against a very good team like Club America.”
One game at a time is the right mentality, especially for Concacaf. As anyone who has followed CCL play for any amount of time should know, it is far from the easiest thing to take down Club America. The Timbers played America very well in the second half of the first leg in Providence Park, and they were only able to get one goal off a somewhat-miraculous penalty kick. And even then, there were moments where they were far from perfect.
“The first half we played against them in Portland, we were a little bit uncomfortable with the ball,” Timbers midfielder Diego Chara said to the press on Tuesday. “We lost too many times the ball and gave them the opportunity to control the game.”
But as noted earlier, the Timbers were able to bounce back from those struggles and put together a solid match. Those passes that didn’t connect in the first finally started to do so in the second. The chances were plentiful after Portland literally generated zero shots in the first half. And most importantly, they didn’t give Club America any chances for themselves.
Having a slow first half followed by an excellent second half isn’t as easy a game plan to execute on the road as it is at home. The Timbers know that, and it’s why they rested most of their key players against FC Dallas on Saturday. This past weekend, after that 4-1 loss, Portland knew there were bigger games ahead. Now the bigger games are here.
“We know this is a big game for us, for the team,” Chara said. “And I think we are ready for them.”
One thing that should help is the return of Jeremy Ebobisse to the team. The 24-year-old striker/winger made his return to the pitch against FC Dallas and was solid for the most part. Now Timbers fans will get to see him in a match where the stakes are much higher, and they’re not the only ones excited about that.
“He’s an important player for us,” Chara said. “Now to have him back is really important because he give us a different options in attack and, yes, I think the team is really, really happy to have him back.”
It’s quite possible that the Timbers will be playing their final 90 minutes of CCL play tonight against Club America. It’s easy to get swept up in the importance of it all, the drama, the possibility of being CONCACAF’d. Anything and everything feels probable. But that doesn’t change the fact that all Savarese and company can do is focus on themselves.
“Tomorrow [now tonight] is just another game, the last 90 of the 180 that we have to play against Club America, and we prepare for it,” Savarese said. “So we anticipate this match being another very competitive match.”