The Portland Timbers CCL Season Died So Their Playoff Chances Could Live

Last Word On Soccer, Joe Hojnacki

The Portland Timbers are out of the CONCACAF Champions League after a 1-1 draw against Saprissa eliminated them from the tournament. This should come as a disappointment, as the Timbers certainly had a talented enough squad to win their group and find themselves playing some competitive soccer before the start of next MLS season. However the Timbers CCL season was a secondary concern compared to the more immediate need to making the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Portland Timbers CCL Season Died So Their Playoff Chances Could Live

Portland is currently out of the playoffs only on goal difference and need to find their first road win of the season in order to get in. Because of this, several key starters didn’t even make the 18. Notoriously absent were key attacking cogs Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi. Both were resting up for the key match in Vancouver on Sunday afternoon. Jack Jewsbury was watching from the stands as well. Liam Ridgewell and Diego Chara were present, but their unfortunate yellow card suspensions will keep them from playing on Sunday anyway.

Instead of their normal aggressive 4-2-3-1, the Timbers came out in a more passive 4-4-2 that relied on laborious crosses instead of attractive passing through the middle of the field. They were failing to get the ball into the penalty area with alarming regularity without the giant target of Adi in the middle to aim at. But it didn’t matter. They have bigger fish to fry.

At least that’s how they see it.

The long standing question of the CONCACAF Champions League is whether or not MLS sides prioritize it over the league, below the league, or on equal terms. The Timbers showed, with their rotated side and non-standard tactics, that they feel succeeding domestically trumps any competition on the continental level.

Had the circumstances of the Timbers season been different, they may have played their stars in a must win Champions League match. If the playoffs had been clinched already or, on the flip side, if they had been eliminated from post season contention, we would have seen Valeri, Adi, Jewsbury, and the entire crew at Providence Park on Wednesday night. They would have trotted out their familiar lineup with their familiar tactics and they probably would have won the match.

Instead, the Portland Timbers CCL season was sacrificed in order to qualify for the playoffs on Sunday afternoon. The thought of playing continental soccer in February was unappealing compared to another, probably unlikely, run at a second MLS Cup.

This is one thing that CONCACAF needs to address when they reformat their continental championship. Why is it that the second most prestigious league in the confederation cannot seem to prioritize that over their domestic playoffs?

The competition calendar could have a lot to do with it. Had Portland won against Saprissa, they would have needed to start training camp earlier. They would have had to scramble around to arrange friendlies earlier in the season when many clubs aren’t ready yet. They would have had the chance that their first match of the season would require them to travel to Mexico or even somewhere more exotic like Panama or Honduras. The club didn’t really want to subject their players to such rigorous travel at the beginning of the season.

CONCACAF could move those knockout rounds to deeper into the spring, when MLS clubs are a little more seasoned. However, this could cause conflicts with the Liga MX Clausura playoffs, which play midweek matches. They could flip the entire thing over and play the group stage in the spring with the quarterfinals taking place in the fall. But, this could cause Liga MX sides to be upset with their season opening with continental play. Also, if they run it too deep into the autumn, the MLS Cup Playoffs are obstructed. It’s a difficult balancing act that CONCACAF has to perform.

If CONCACAF could find a way to reorganize their calendar to accommodate MLS without upsetting the Mexican sides that rule the competition, there may be less apathy from American clubs who see the domestic league as the be all end all of their existence. And it could have saved the Portland Timbers CCL season when all is said and done.