PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Timbers head coach John Spencer has said it before, and he’ll say it again: The Timbers' struggles on the road are due in large part to the team’s youth and adjusting to rigorous cross-country road trips.
“We do the exact same game preparation every single game and try to win the game,” Spencer said. “I just think it comes down to maturity. Traveling to different places – these young guys haven’t done it before.”
The Timbers – and their 1-9-4 road record – will travel to Vancouver for a Sunday match in the newly renovated BC Place. The relatively short trip for Portland is a far cry from two out of their last three road games, to New York (2-0 loss Saturday) and Philadelphia (scoreless tie Sept. 10).
“[Young players] are not used to the travel in this country, the time changes,” Spencer said. “It’s a difficult league to come into and make an impact right away, as we’ve seen with some world-class players who have come into the league. They haven’t started that great. It’s taken them a little bit of a time to become accustomed to the league itself.”
Spencer cited New York star and French international Thierry Henry, who scored two goals in 11 games in his first year with the Red Bulls, as an example of players struggling to adjust to MLS play. Henry has 12 goals this year, second-best in the league.
“They haven’t lost their ability,” Spencer said. “But that first year in Major League Soccer is a difficult one. If it’s hard for world-class players, it’s definitely hard for young players in their first year.”
The Timbers will have the added pressure of playing with a spot in the playoffs on the line. They sit two points out of the 10th and final wild card position.
Vancouver are the only MLS team mathematically eliminated from the postseason, but will be playing in their revamped stadium for the first time. And, of course, the Portland-Vancouver rivalry that dates back to the franchises’ days in the NASL always looms large.
“The one thing that they’ll be playing for is two expansion teams meeting each other,” Spencer said. “One has a chance of making the playoffs and one team has a chance of stopping the other team from making the playoffs. I think that’s the big incentive they have this weekend.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.