PORTLAND, Ore. – Look busy, Portland Timbers.
The collective eyes of the North American soccer community will be watching when the Seattle Sounders, the Timbers' bitter Cascadia rivals, pay the Rose City a visit Saturday for a nationally televised game at JELD-WEN Field (3:30 pm ET, NBC, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
And that’s not lost on anyone in Timbers camp as the club looks to grab hold of any positive following a highly anticipated season that has not gone according to plan. Bottom line, Saturday’s game could be Portland’s biggest of the season.
“It’s important for us to put it together at a key moment, being a nationally televised game,” said interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson, who will presumably coach his last home Cascadia match with newly hired head coach Caleb Porter set to take over during the offseason.
“It’s important for big players to have big games and make the most of the opportunity. And for us to showcase this organization in a positive way is always a motivating factor. So I’m sure the staff see it, the players definitely see it and hopefully we move forward and get a positive result.”
Both teams come into the game under pressure to take away three points.
Seattle, winners of five out of their last seven MLS games, are in second place in the Western Conference with their sights set on overtaking first-place San Jose.
Portland’s pressure is, of course, very different.
The Timbers are in last place in the conference and all but out of the playoff race, which has shifted all of their focus, along with that of their hyper-intense support, to the Cascadia Cup.
And in that fan-created, three-team derby among the league’s Pacific Northwest teams, three points would give Portland their first title in the MLS era.
“You expect any derby game to be very much a high-intensity affair with both teams wanting to win,” Wilkinson said. “For Seattle there’s something on the line, we’ve beat them at home already this season, and the Cascadia Cup is important to them and their fan base as well. And for us, it’s more important based on how this season has gone.”
So how does the team stay levelheaded, especially with camera crews from NBC and the BBC buzzing around team facilities over the past couple of days? Training at JELD-WEN certainly didn’t have a high-pressure feel to it with players and coaches joking and goofing around during warm-ups.
“As you saw in the warm-up, it’s just trying to relax the group a little more, still stay focused, still stay professional, but try to bring out a little bit of life, bring out a little bit more personality in the players,” Wilkinson said. “And it’s just like any other game, it just means a lot more. We remind them to go into it like any other game just try to understand that we expect a lot more out of you.”
Wilkinson said the team got a taste of the limelight when midfielder Darlington Nagbe was being shadowed by a NBC crew from "MLS 36" two weeks ago leading up to another home Cascadia match late last month against Vancouver. And Nagbe responded by scoring a goal in the 2-1 victory, his third in as many games.
“For Darlington, when the camera crews were on him, he was special, so I really don’t mind it as much as long as all the players react that way,” Wilkinson said. “But most of the players have been around this before, they know what to expect, they know how important the game is. It’s important for them to focus. If anything it’s a constant reminder that they do have a job to do and they do need to focus.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.