BEAVERTON, Ore. – On a clear, brisk Friday afternoon at Portland’s training facility, the tone was more serious than usual.
The players kept the joking to a minimum, their minds obviously tuned to the 67,000-plus fans and the possibility of a Cascadia Cup championship waiting for them Sunday in Seattle (9 pm ET; ESPN in the US, TSN2 in Canada; LIVE chat on MLSsoccer.com).
“As you get a little bit closer to the game, there’s more and more nerves that are going to set in,” team captain and midfielder Jack Jewsbury said. “Training has been good, been intense, as you would expect leading up to a big game like this.”
Nerves certainly will be tested in the third Timbers-Sounders game of the season. The largest-ever traveling contingent of Timbers supporters are expected to be part of one of the biggest crowds in league history. And to top it off, the Timbers can win the Cascadia Cup, the three-team fan-based derby, with a win or draw, something the club has made a priority amidst a dismal season.
“It’s going to be tough, for sure,” Timbers defender Kosuke Kimura said. “Sixty-thousand or more, and most of them are their fans. And Seattle, they have great fans – not as great as our fans, but they have a great amount of people coming to watch the game and for support.”
So what’s the key to playing in that atmosphere?
“Just keep our cool,” Kimura explained. “It’s a big game for us in front of a big crowd, but we just have keep ourselves cool and calm and just play our game. As long as we do that I think we can do it.”
Jewsbury, a 10-year veteran, has played in front of a similar sized crowd when Kansas City played host to Manchester United in an exhibition game, but never in an MLS game with so much at stake. He said how players manage in the game’s first moments will be critical.
“The first 15 minutes you realize how hectic the game is going to be, and it’s a matter of how quick we can settle in, get our rhythm and start to impose ourselves upon them,” Jewsbury said. “So I think the first 15 minutes will really set the tone for the entire match.”
Interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson said the way the team responds in that environment will go a long way in their offseason evaluations. And he said he’s been pleased with the serious demeanor of the players this week.
“I think with a younger group, they’re very intrinsic, very focused and they worry about their own performances, which for a young group isn’t a bad thing,” Wilkinson said.
And considering the club’s well-publicized road struggles – they’re winless in 15 games away from JELD-WEN Field – turning that around despite the intense pressure would be a sign of tremendous growth.
“As an interim coach and preparing for next season, it’s very intriguing to be honest,” Wilkinson said. “You start to look at players, and we’ve made particular note how players have performed in training this week leading up to the game. And obviously we’ll sit down and reevaluate the performance in the game and start to see if there are any ties with the ways they’ve progressed and the way they’ve trained. For us, it’s very, very interesting to see what the young players have in store for us.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.