PORTLAND, Ore. – Motivation turns from intangible to concrete for the Portland Timbers this week as they prepare for what may be the club’s most important road game of the season on Sunday, a visit to bitter rivals Seattle Sounders FC.
With the playoffs now out of the question, Timbers players have shifted their focus to showing well for incoming head coach Caleb Porter, while at the same time attempting to produce results for a loyal and demanding fan base.
And on Sunday at CenturyLink Field, they play for the Cascadia Cup.
“It’s the biggest game of the year,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said.
The Timbers can hoist the Cup, a fan-based derby among MLS’ three Pacific Northwest teams, with a win or tie against Seattle. It’s a light at the end of a long tunnel of challenges in a season that never lived up to its high expectations. And a group which has been playing for little more than pride, and a future head coach most of them have never met, actually has something real to play for.
“The mood in the camp is good,” assistant coach Sean McAuley said after Tuesday’s training session at JELD-WEN Field. “We understand that this is a huge, huge game for us.”
McAuley said the players have responded well over the season’s final stretch, even though the playoffs have long been out of the picture. Last week, interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson said players who coast in the season’s last month will do so at their own peril. McAuley, who led Tuesday’s practice while Wilkinson attended to his general managing duties, said the club has shown the right amount of fight, especially in battling back from a controversial referee’s call that led to a penalty-kick goal and a one-goal deficit against D.C. United on Saturday.
The Timbers rallied to end the game in a 1-1 tie, notching a 79th-minute equalizer from Bright Dike.
McAuley said it will make choosing the lineup for Sunday particularly challenging.
“We go into it with the fight and desire that is needed for a derby game, which I think was shown in the game on Saturday,” McAuley said. “I thought every player, while fighting through adversity, absolutely worked and worked and worked in order to prove to him that they want to be here. So it puts us in a good position that we have players who want to fight for the team, fight for the cause.”
Darlington Nagbe, TV star
Nagbe, the Timbers’ second-year midfielder who was recently named to the No. 15 spot on MLSsoccer.com’s 24 under 24 list, was featured on NBC Sports Network’s latest episode of MLS 36 over the weekend.
WATCH: Darlington Nagbe - MLS 36 Sneak Peek
Nagbe’s edition of the documentary-style show that follows MLS stars in the 36 hours leading up to a match aired Saturday afternoon before Portland’s match against D.C. United. The show followed Nagbe during his preparations for the Timbers’ Aug. 25 match against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Nagbe said it was a bit surreal watching an entire documentary about his life.
“I was happy with it,” Nagbe said. “They did a good job, and it was fun doing it.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.