The Portland Timbers have done some serious damage on the road this MLS postseason. They opened the postseason with a victory at FC Dallas in the knockout round before technically losing at Seattle, but winning the overall tie in a thrilling penalty shootout. They followed that up with a 3-2 win at Sporting Kansas City to book a spot in their second MLS Cup Final in the last four years.
They are now about to face their toughest road test yet when they face Atlanta United in Saturday’s MLS Cup final. They are big underdogs against one of the best teams in league history, and when the largest crowd in MLS Cup history is cheering for the opponent, things get all the more difficult.
“We know it’s going to be a tough match, a difficult environment,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said at Thursday’s pre-MLS Cup press conference. “But that is what has gotten our players more motivated to continue to go forward.”
Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be something new for the Timbers. Portland, let alone any MLS team, hasn’t played in such a massive match in front of such a large crowd. Yet, at the same time it will be something familiar. The Timbers have played in rivalry matches in front of a ruckus crowd in Seattle as recently as the Western Conference Semifinal. That sort of experience is the sort of thing that the Timbers are hoping to build off of when they take the field in front of more than 70,000 fans on Saturday.
“Any time you’re going on the road and you’re playing in that type of atmosphere and you’re able to come out with a positive result, it gives you confidence going into the next one,” goalkeeper Jeff Attinella said at training on Thursday afternoon. “Dallas as well isn’t an easy place to win and we had a red card and down to 10 men in the last 40 minutes or so and we were able to get out with a win. This whole playoffs it feels like it’s been preparing us for this type of moment. I think internally we feel confident about being prepared for the environment.”
Success away from home hasn’t always been the case for Portland this season. They opened the campaign with five straight losses outside of Providence Park and just two years ago they went an entire season without winning a game on the road. Such failures cost them a playoff spot when defending their last MLS Cup title, but this year they turned into a learning experience.
“I think sometimes when you lose, you learn more because you go deeper into understanding why,” Savarese said. “It allows you to see the character of your team and the people around you, what you can count on and what you can inspire off.”
That adversity appears to have paid off so far for Portland. The only thing left is to avoid finishing the season the way they started it, with a loss away from home. But at least Savarese knows his team will be prepared thanks to those early season setbacks and the more recent playoff success.
“What we’re going to encounter this weekend is going to be a great stage, a lot of people, great stadium, good team, and that’s even more motivating for our players.”