Including this weekend’s home match against the LA Galaxy, the Portland Timbers have five games left in regular season play. Five games to make the playoffs and signal that the team has well and truly arrived. The stakes look like this: make the playoffs (they must register in the top five places in the Western Conference - currently they’re 3rd), and the club can proclaim that the growing pains of the first two seasons have finally been left behind. Miss the playoffs and face an avalanche of bitter disappointment and a flood of the kind of desperate self-pity that is the province of truly passionate fanbases. All the optimism of the successful first half of the season would feel misplaced and premature. No one wants to feel naïve, especially going into a fourth professional season.
So what do the last five fixtures look like? The Timbers will play both teams currently above them on the table and the one directly below. This is perfect for a scorching run, during which the Timbers Army drinks the tears of its bitter foes, or the ingredients for a total implosion.
This weekend’s game versus the Galaxy looks to be a doozy. They sit right below the Timbers on the conference table with 45 points, one shy of the Timbers’ 46. If the Timbers blow this game, the nerves will most definitely set in, as they’ll slip down to 4th place. They could even drop to 5th if the Colorado Rapids win their fixture against Dallas.
In fact, the conference table is so tight that if the two teams below Colorado also win their games, Portland could be a mere 2 points from sitting on dreary eighth place. Only 10 points separates first-placed Seattle from eighth-placed San Jose. When MLS boosters talk about parity in the league, this is what they mean.
The Timbers have done well against the Galaxy this season, drawing 0-0 away and winning at home 2-1. The Galaxy are in the midst of some mediocre league form, having drawn or lost their last three games, so while it’ll be a tough game, it’s one the Timbers will go into with some confidence. It could provide the perfect inspiration for a late season rally.
Following the Galaxy game, the Timbers will play away to the Vancouver Whitecaps, currently sixth in the table and 5 points behind Portland. This will be a tricky one: a late season Cascadia Cup game that Vancouver will be desperate to win at home and revive their own chances of a playoff berth. The teams have drawn both games so far, 1-1 and 2-2, and I imagine if the table wasn’t so tight, Porter wouldn’t be unduly upset by nicking a single point here, local rivalry aside. It could be a fine result depending on the context of the weekend’s other matches.
One Cascadia Cup game follows another, though, and the second presents an even stiffer challenge: the Seattle Sounders will be coming to Portland. This will be a must-win game on the basis of pride alone. It could be make-or-break for the playoffs too, as there are only two left in the season after it. Seattle is currently top of the conference, four points ahead of Portland with a game in hand, and in terrific form having won eight of their last ten games. They would like nothing better than to rub salt in whatever wound they can inflict. It’ll be intense.
After the Sounders come Real Salt Lake, pundits choice for best team in the league, and the folks who recently beat Portland 4-2, and earlier knocked them out of the Open Cup. Yes, it’ll be rough, but it has the potential for massive retributive glory.
Finally, the Timbers play far-and-away the worst team in the conference, Chivas USA. Pushovers, right? Except they tied the Timbers just a couple of weeks ago and, with no chance whatsoever at a playoff berth, could play to restore some of their deeply wounded pride. This sort of team at the end of a long season can be quite a banana peel. They have nothing to lose.
So it looks to be quite a finale, with the possibility of history-making achievement neatly balanced against soul-destroying failure. It should be quite a ride.