One of five MLS teams in this year's continental competition, the Portland Timbers are ecstatic to be back in the Concacaf Champions League. And they’ve done all they can this long offseason to enter firing out of the gate.
Head coach Giovanni Savarese and veteran midfielders Diego Chara and Diego Valeri noted the relative disadvantage MLS clubs face by opening their season with CCL, whereas other North American clubs are well into their seasons. Still, they can’t wait to get started on Tuesday against Honduran side CD Marathon (6 pm ET | FS1).
“We feel very proud in so many ways to compete in the CCL,” Savarese told media on a virtual press conference. “We earned it (by winning the) MLS is Back Tournament. Now we represent the United States, Major League Soccer, our city, our fans and our club. We want to be competitive. … We understand how difficult it is to go abroad and play, regardless of whatever country you have to go. These are completely different matches. We have a big responsibility.”
Chara, who turned 35 on Monday, was around for each of the club’s first two CCL runs, back in 2014 and 2016 – ditto for Valeri. The tournament still used a group stage then knockout round, and the Timbers were eliminated in the group stage both times. The tournament has since restructured to begin with two-legged Round of 16 series, skipping the group stage.
“It’s a big deal,” Chara said. “If you win this tournament, you get to go to the Club World Cup. From Colombia, we played in the Copa Libertadores and that’s a big deal for those clubs. I feel the same here. We have to prepare well and be ready for this big challenge.”
Last season’s CCL winners, Tigres UANL, advanced to the final of the FIFA Club World Cup, where they lost to European champions Bayern Munich.
Portland’s run starts against Marathon, who are struggling in their domestic campaign, with just two wins from 10 Clausura matches. Still, the Timbers expect anything but an easy match
“The biggest challenge is to play in the way and with the rhythm we need to play,” Valeri said. “We’ve played preseason games, but it’s not the same as an official game. They are in rhythm playing in their competitions. That’s the biggest challenge, managing the rhythm.”
Savarese was non-committal when asked if talisman Sebastian Blanco, recovering from a torn ACL, will make his return from injury against Marathon. The attacking midfielder traveled with Portland and is back in training.
Tuesday kicks off a long season for Portland, juggling the CCL with their domestic aspirations as a club widely viewed as one of the Western Conference’s top challengers.
“We want to be MLS Cup champions,” Savarese said. “We want to be CCL champions. We want to represent this country in the Club World Cup. We need to be as good as we can be from the first match and plan accordingly for each match. Towards the end (of the season), we’ll see where that gets us. I believe in this group very much.”