BEAVERTON, Ore. – The Portland Timbers are headed to the MLS playoffs for the first time in their MLS history, that much is clear.
What isn’t set in stone yet is whether their postseason run starts with a midweek elimination game or the conference semifinals next weekend. Head coach Caleb Porter, however, is making it more definitive.
Playoffs for the Timbers start Saturday on the road against last-place Chivas USA in the teams’ regular season finale (10:30 pm ET; MLS Live), Porter told the media at the team’s training facility Friday before departing for Southern California.
“I look at this as really a part of the playoffs,” he said. “We have six games if things go well to win a MLS Cup trophy. And I look at this game as an extension of the playoffs because if you win this game you chop off a game in the playoffs. So playoffs start for us on Saturday, and I expect a playoff performance out of our group.”
A win for Portland gives them the top seed in the Western Conference, regardless of other results. They even have a shot at the Supporters’ Shield if the New York Red Bulls lose and Sporting Kansas City lose or tie.
A Timbers tie puts them in the top three in the West, meaning they’d bypass a Wednesday elimination game. But if they lose, they’ll have a midweek date at JELD-WEN Field looming with the loser going home.
“It’d be a nice cherry on top to be able to say we’re the Western Conference champions, but at the end of the day the most important thing is getting three points and making sure we’re in that top three,” Porter said.
With that in mind, Portland will need to reverse their recent fortunes from the StubHub Center. Chivas played the Timbers to a 1-1 tie on Sept. 14, a result that had Porter fuming about what he considered a “casual” approach.
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In the four games after that result, Portland scored the first goal and won three games by a 1-0 score line. They then played Real Salt Lake to a scoreless draw last weekend, setting up the critical final weekend.
“We didn’t like the way we played, weren’t happy with it, we made some changes, and we’ve been much better starting games,” Porter said. “Our mentality has been right ever single game since then, so this is a great opportunity go full circle and go back to the team that kind of got us started off on a negative that we turned into a positive. But it would be a fitting way to close the season, to get a good result there.”
Porter considers the Chivas game to so important, in fact, that he intends to give midfielder and offensive lynchpin Diego Valeri the start rather than resting him for the playoffs. Valeri missed Portland’s 1-0 win over Seattle on Oct. 13 and has been used sparingly in other games while battling an adductor strain suffered in early September.
But Porter said the Argentinean Designated Player is “feeling as good as he’s felt since the injury.”
“Couldn’t have come at a better time,” Porter said. “… We need to get him in sync with our team. He’s been in and out, some games coming off the bench, some games starting, some games not playing at all. We need to have him in a rhythm and in sync with our team. … This is a really important game.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.