This is the weekend the Portland Timbers have been waiting for.
With three points at home against LAFC (12pm October 2, ABC-KATU) this Sunday, the Timbers would secure a playoff spot and eliminate arch-rival Seattle. Thanks to MLS’ convoluted tiebreakers, there would need to be a few other results to lead directly to those two things happening, but it would all be over but the shouting: Portland in, Seattle out.
To think that the Timbers are even in a position to grab a playoff spot, much less possibly finish in the upper half of the Western Conference playoff bracket, is rather remarkable, considering where the Timbers have been this season.
This team is unlike the Timbers’ squads of prior years, which have seemed to heat up at just the right time to come charging back from the lowest of lows to make it to the playoffs. Instead, outside of a 7-2 pasting of Sporting Kansas City in Portland early in the season (which SKC turned around with a 4-1 drubbing of the Timbers in Kansas City later in the year), the Timbers have been incredibly consistent at tying … a lot.
The Timbers lead the Western Conference with 13 draws and have had them come in all manner of ways. Against Minnesota in July, they came back from down 3-1 to take the lead, only to surrender a tying goal moments later and settle for a 4-4 draw. At Columbus two weeks ago, they spent 90+ minutes looking lost, mainly on offense, only for Santiago Moreno to knock in a goal at the whistle to salvage a 1-1 draw and put them in a position to lock up a playoff spot this weekend.
It is a squad that has been maddening at times with its inability to score goals and then at other times scores when it has no business doing so. The Timbers claimed the Cascadia Cup after going 3-0-1 against the Sounders and Whitecaps, including outscoring the Sounders 5-1 in the two matches between those clubs. The Sounders will rue those lost points if they don’t somehow pull off a miracle of miracles to make the playoff bracket.
The Timbers have also left plenty of points on the table with all their draws this season, but better to manage a single point than zero points in some of those matches, and with new players stepping in and familiar faces assuming new roles this season, growing pains were to be expected. It’s better those growing pains should end with a playoff spot than to be left on the outside looking in, or worse, to enter the season with the sky-high expectations of a club like Seattle and be left doing a faceplant at the end of the season.
The Timbers still have plenty of growing room. Aljaz Ivacic is still growing as a goalkeeper, the defense is still a work in progress, and the offense must be more consistent. This offseason, the team will have to make a goal to improve its designated player spots. Sebastian Blanco has certainly earned his keep, and while Yimmi Chara is an excellent player and an integral part of the team culture, the team would probably be better served to try to buy down his contract. Forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda has all but vanished from the team game plan and hasn’t scored since July. For a team that is not one of the league’s premier spenders, having 1 of 3 designated players be a non-factor is just not a sustainable trend. But despite all that, the Timbers are here, knocking on the door to the playoffs.
It’s appropriate the Timbers’ playoff chance should come down to the most straightforward path involving getting a win against the most challenging team to generate that result against. LAFC has already secured the top spot in the conference and is in a race for the supporter’s shield. A loss or draw to LAFC would inject plenty of drama into the decision day finale for the Timbers- a road match against Real Salt Lake with a playoff spot on the line for both teams. That would be the most difficult, maddening path to the playoffs, so it would only be fitting for the Timbers to go that route. But perhaps, for once, they just won’t do that? Maybe a nice 3-1 win to drive a stake into the heart of their Cascadia rivals, lock up a playoff spot, and allow everyone to have a normal heart rate during the regular season finale? Is that too much to ask?