PORTLAND, Ore. – A new era in the Portland Timbers' MLS existence will officially begin when the LA Galaxy come to town for Saturday night's game at JELD-WEN Field (11 pm ET, NBCSN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
Having moved on from former head coach John Spencer and with a week of training under interim boss Gavin Wilkinson, it’s time for the rubber to meet the road.
“There’s one way to react, and that’s to react in a positive fashion, come out and work a little bit harder, apply themselves and ourselves a little bit more and look to get a good result,” Wilkinson said about the team’s imperative to filter out the distractions of a tumultuous week and focus on a critical game. “Once they cross that white line and such, and once they’re on the field, they have a job to do. And they’re good professionals.”
With the Timbers’ well-publicized ineffectiveness on the road – widely believed to have ultimately led to Spencer’s demise, having gone winless in eight attempts – it places that much more weight on getting results at home. And right now, a result against the Galaxy would mean more than just starting the Wilkinson era off on the right foot.
At the midway point of the MLS season, Portland are in eighth place in the Western Conference with 19 points from 17 games. But they’re just four points behind fifth-placed LA with three games in hand.
“At this point we have to remember the season is only halfway over,” goalkeeper Troy Perkins said. “There’s a lot of points on the table still, and we’re not very far out from a playoff spot.”
Perkins used the Philadelphia Union’s turnaround since the dismissal of head coach Peter Nowak as an example of how a new beginning can reenergize a team. The Union have won four games since Nowak’s departure in early June.
“I’m not saying that’s going to happen here, but sometimes a change just in philosophy makes a huge difference,” Perkins said.
And Wilkinson has made it clear that changes are in the works despite not going into specifics. The team added several additional training sessions this week to integrate the players into Wilkinson’s system.
Striker Kris Boyd said only time would tell.
“Everyone in the dressing room is professional about it,” Boyd said. “They’ll go about their business and we look forward to the game on Saturday. And I’m sure even John himself would want us to win the game on Saturday.”
And that leaves one intangible: can the Timbers move past the firing of the likable and fiery Spencer, the only coach the MLS iteration of the franchise has ever known, to focus on the task at hand? Wilkinson said that may have been his most important task this week.
“Keeping the players focused, keeping them motivated, looking ahead and honestly getting them all to believe in the direction,” he said. “I think the direction we’re going in was one that was working at home. And again it’s a matter of players believing in themselves, believing in the system, believing in the staff, believing in the people around them and in general the organization. And as long as we come out with the same attitude we’ve had in the past at home, I think we’ll do well.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.