BEAVERTON, Ore. – The Portland Timbers will likely have to put their best foot forward in Sunday’s second leg of the Western Conference Championship against Real Salt Lake at JELD-WEN Field if they are to advance to the MLS Cup.
And with a two-week break between the two legs, there’s the worry that rustiness may play a role in the most important game of the two teams’ seasons.
“I think sometimes what can happen, if you haven’t played a game, you’re just a little out of sync as a team,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said Monday at the team facility after the his side’s first training session following a weekend off. “I’ve seen that with our team.”
In two similar situations this season, the Timbers tied once and lost once after extended breaks. Real Salt Lake have lost twice and tied once. Porter said he would have preferred to play such a critical game a week after RSL handed them a 4-2 defeat in the first leg last Sunday at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“It’s good to have time to prepare, but typically you don’t want two weeks to prepare,” he said. “For me, a week off is perfect because you get enough time to recover physically, you get enough time to prepare tactically but you stay in that rhythm of you play a game, you prepare, you play a game.”
With that in mind, Porter put his team through a 50-minute game simulation at JELD-WEN Field last Friday. He said the first team scored two goals against a scout team playing in RSL’s formation and style.
“It’s not exactly like the game,” Porter said. “But I think it’s important that we did something like that on Friday, and it was very much a situational match play. … I thought it was very, very good. It couldn’t have gone better.”
Despite the high stakes, Porter said he isn’t approaching the schedule any differently than he would during the season. He called Monday’s session a “re-entry day” focusing mostly on fitness levels. He said he’ll slowly insert tactical aspects of what he wants to accomplish in the game throughout the week starting Tuesday.
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“It was just good to get a couple days of rest,” defender Michael Harrington said. “… I don’t think there’ll be any rustiness as long as we come out in training and bring intensity in training. That wears any rust off, and we’ve done a good job of that so far.”
Ultimately, Porter said, it was good to get some time away over the weekend to recharge the batteries and said the guys “looked real energized today.” He even used the chance to scout several college games over the weekend, sending assistant coaches to a handful of conference championship games.
“I think both teams are in the same situation,” Porter said. “I think we’ll be a bit more in sync because we’re at home, a little more comfortable. But yeah, I think that’s always the danger when you’ve had a couple weeks off because you lose a bit of that game sharpness.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.