BEAVERTON, Ore.— If the MLS regular season is a marathon, the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs are a sprint, and concerns about yellow and red cards take on a whole new meaning in the compressed business end of the season.
Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese understands that the playoffs are a different beast, as they gear up for the Western Conference Championship against Sporting Kansas City, with the first leg taking place at Providence Park on Nov. 25 (7:30 pm ET | FS1, TSN, TVAS).
“You know that during the season you have another game to play,” he explained at the Timbers practice facility. “Here? Now you have two games and, if you don't do the things the right way, you're not continuing.”
He would know; after all, Savarese played in the first MLS playoff game ever played as a member of the MetroStars in 1996, with his side losing to eventual MLS Cup champions D.C. United.
It’s that veteran poise that Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella credits for Portland’s passage to the Western Conference Championship.
Nursing a 2-0 lead on the road in the Knockout Round against FC Dallas, the Timbers were without defender Larrys Mabiala for nearly the entire second half after the defender was ejected. The Timbers buckled slightly but were still able to see out the 2-1 win.
“Once [Mabiala] got that red card,” Attinella recounted, “[We knew] it was time to stay calm and we knew what we had to do, and we kind of knew what the game was going to turn into. We leaned on our veterans and they did a good job.”
Because of MLS postseason rules — where picking up two yellow cards results in a one-game suspension — the Timbers will need to “play smart,” in the words of Savarese, as both Chara and Valeri (along with midfielder Andres Flores and defender Liam Ridgewell) are already sitting on a yellow card.
Of course that’s a concern to Savarese, but he doesn't want to make it the centerpiece of the team's preparations for the series.
“We cannot be thinking too much about the yellow cards,” Savarese explained. “I know that those players are smart enough to know what they can do and what they cannot do. We need to just be prepared for Kansas City, which is going to be a difficult match. They are a good team and now we are preparing accordingly.”
To get this far in the postseason, the Timbers have had to absorb a remarkable deal of pressure, needing a then-season high 45 clearances to get past Dallas before recording 55 clearances eight days later in Seattle. In each of those matches, the Timbers possession dipped below 35 percent. Throughout all three postseason matches, Portland have been outshot by a nearly two-to-one margin.
While no MLS team put more shots on frame in 2018 than Sporting Kansas City, Mabiala says his team is “building on confidence.”
“I don’t know if you remember but after the first few games, people were doubting us,” said Mabiala, referring to the Timbers' struggles getting out of the gate this season. “But we were the first ones to say that we were confident. You know we were working a lot. Now I think [people are starting to see] all the work we’ve been putting in this season.”