With most questions answered in preseason, Portland Timbers preparations shift to mental game

Portland Timbers training

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Courtesy of the Portland Timbers

PORTLAND, Ore. – Their starting lineup is set. The formation and strategy has been ingrained in the players’ minds since early last season. And even the team’s few newcomers seem integrated after a two-month preseason.

So what’s left for the Portland Timbers in the days leading up to their season opener Saturday against the Philadelphia Union (10:30 pm ET; MLS Live)?

The rest is a mind game, head coach Caleb Porter said.

“If we can get them in the right zone psychologically, they’re going to perform well individually,” Porter said after a recent training session at Providence Park. “If we can get the chemistry further along this week after several days of training then we’re going to be a notch better in the game.

"We threw a lot of tactics at them the last several weeks. For me, it’s more about those two things, psychology and chemistry, this week.”

There aren’t even injuries to worry about, other than the long-term prognosis of wingers Rodney Wallace, who won’t be back until mid-summer while he recovers from knee surgery, and Steve Zakuani, who has been training with the team this week but likely won’t be available Saturday.

The only question appears to be how Porter lines up his impressive array of attackers.

In their final preseason game Saturday against the Vancouver Whitecaps, he interchanged Diego Valeri and Gastón Fernández at the No. 10 role in a 4-3-3 formation. Porter said he “felt a notch better” with Valeri in his usual attacking midfielder role with Fernandez on the left, Darlington Nagbe on the right at Maximiliano Urruti as the lone striker.

“I think it’s good for being this early, but it will get better,” Porter said. “… Because for me, winning, a lot of times it comes down to the chemistry of the group, it comes down to the psychology of the group, which is the other thing I’m really going to be conscience of this week is making sure that we’re in the right zone psychologically, right in between confidence and anxiety.”

Porter also has a built-in motivator this week. All the expectations heaped on the Timbers this year after advancing to the Western Conference Championship in their first appearance in the MLS Cup playoffs will finally be put to the test with points on the line.

“It feels good to know that this week the game means something,” Porter said. “You can spin that all you want and get the guys to approach [the preseason] as a real game, but until it is a real game, you’re not going to get your best.

"I think we’ve shown in the last several weeks that we have the right mentality. These guys are gearing up, but I think you’ll see a different level this week.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.