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Preview: A return to normality at Providence Park for the Timbers

For the first time in a long time, the Timbers will play in front of a full-capacity Providence Park. They can’t think of a better way to get things started.

SOCCER: JUL 01 MLS - Portland Timbers at Austin FC Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Thursday, something strange happened. Everything almost felt normal. That’s because instead of the usual Zoom call that occurs 48 hours or so before a Portland Timbers match, the press actually got to go to the Timbers’ training facility in Beaverton and talk in person (!!) to head coach Giovanni Savarese and assorted players. It was a surreal experience, for both the press and the team alike.

“It seems like I blinked two years ago, and now we’re back here,” Savarese said. “It’s great to have you guys back here. It feels a little bit more normal.”

Normal feels like an appropriate theme for this weekend — mostly because things are going to be as close to normal as they have been in about a year and a half. The Timbers are set to play their first match of 2021 with Providence Park at full capacity tonight against FC Dallas. For Savarese and company, a packed Providence Park is more than enough motivation.

“You almost forgot last year how difficult it was to play without fans, because when you get back in Providence Park ... we forgot how incredible it is,” Timbers goalkeeper said, stumbling trying to find just the right words to describe playing in a full stadium. “They literally lift us up and the atmosphere is special.”

The Timbers could use a little lifting up at the moment. Before their two-week hiatus, they were struggling with their schedule. They had accumulated only four points in their last four matches (five matches if you go back to before the international break) and had just been blown out 4-1 at expansion side Austin FC’s new stadium. It just compounded what has already been a very difficult year for the Timbers.

And its not one that’s suddenly going to get easier. The Timbers have returned some depth, thankfully, with Yimmi Chara and Felipe Mora returning to the team after playing with their respective national teams during the Copa America tournament. But they now lose Eryk Williamson — who has arguably been their most important player this entire season — to the U.S. men’s national team. Claudio Bravo is also headed to Tokyo with Argentina’s U-23 squad.

Those are not easy losses to take, but, for Savarese, having some more depth is something that should bolster the team:

“It’s been that kind of year,” Savarese said about the large swath of call-ups and injuries the Timbers have faced. “But the reality is that we’re getting some back, which is important ... We’re starting to look a little normal.”

Regarding the losses, after falling to Austin FC, Savarese noted that the team had to do some reflection on where they stand as a club. It’s easy to talk about missing guys and tight schedules, but every team deals with those issues. Portland needed to do some self-reflection on what this team wanted to accomplish. And that’s why these past two weeks were highly important.

“I think after Austin it was a good time to recalibrate and push forward,” Clark said. “We’ve had two weeks to really hone in on what we’re trying to do as a team, and the coaches have put forward a plan, so we’re following that.”

“It’s about collecting yourself,” Savarese said. “Breathing, getting back into who we are and making sure that we’re all on the same path. I think this time off came at a perfect time for us to be able to collect ourselves and get some guys back and be stronger than ever.”

The Timbers have the chance to take what they’ve done these past two weeks and challenge themselves against FC Dallas, who they lost to in tough fashion earlier this year. But in a weekend that’s all about normality, nothing would feel more commonplace than to earn a win in front of thousands of fans in green and gold screaming their heads off. A chance for that kind of return to normal is all anyone wants.