What defines a big game?
Is it simply one played against the top teams with all star players? The prime-time showdowns with national audiences? Last week’s match with Seattle was billed as just that: the most intense rivalry in MLS, played in arguably its most intense stadium, broadcast nationwide by NBC Sports. And indeed, for an early, regular-season game, the game was as entertaining, exciting, and dramatic as it gets.
Timbers supporters would prefer a lot less drama. After a tumultuous first half, which ended 2-2, the home side came storming out of the gate, scoring twice in two minutes. Diego Chara’s second of the match, and Maxi Urruti’s first of the season—Goal of the Week candidates both—saw Portland suddenly sitting pretty, two goals up, with a little over a half hour left to play. But the Sounders rallied for a 4-4 draw and fingers are once again being pointed at the back line. At least three of the four Seattle goals were served on a silver platter by poor man marking. Meanwhile, Portland conceded its astonishing fourth penalty kick in five games, or sixth in eight counting the Rose City Invitational preseason games. Seattle’s travelling customers left thinking they just won the league, Timbers supporters with a bitter taste of another draw.
There is work to do this weekend. Chivas USA, despite having two more points than Portland, is the only Western club with a worse goal differential. Portland, for better or worse, is unbeaten at home. Diego Valeri looks back in form, Urruti is off the schneid, and Chara can suddenly find space from 25 yards out and hit the target. Both teams have glaring problems at the back, other than in goal, where Dan Kennedy and Donovan Ricketts (back from injury and suspension) are among the league’s best keepers. Chivas will likely hand a start to former Timbers defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste, who was turned inside out by the Galaxy last week in a 3-0 loss. Beware, however. You don’t have to search too far to find former Timbers who step up their game against their old club. Ask Adam Moffat. Ask Kenny Cooper.
On Saturday, there will be no national television, scarce travelling support, and the least-sexy opponent this side of Columbus. But does that not make it a big game?
It’s a huge game, nearing on must-win. Following Chivas USA, the Timbers travel to their one true house of horror, Rio Tinto Stadium, home of the one Western Conference team the Timbers have never beaten: Real Salt Lake. After that, a trip to the orange oven in Houston. If Portland fails to take three points against MLS’s eternal bottom-dwellers, the possibility of going winless in the first two months of the season becomes very real.