PORTLAND — The last time the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps met in a meaningful match, James Marcelin scored the only goal as the Timbers won 1-0.
Plenty has changed for both clubs since that Oct. 10 match ended the road for the Timbers as a second-division side. The coaches are new, and the bulk of both rosters have changed.
So have the stakes, even though that October match was the second leg of a playoff series won by Vancouver, 2-1.
To breathe life into its Major League Soccer playoff hopes Portland desperately needs a win in Saturday’s 7 p.m. match at Jeld-Wen Field. For Vancouver, it is a chance to get a signature win in what has been a difficult first season in MLS.
Regardless of the stakes, this first MLS clash between the Timbers and Whitecaps is special for its place in a rivalry that dates to 1975 and the North American Soccer League.
“Just being a rivalry game adds extra spice to it,” Timbers coach John Spencer said. “It doesn’t matter whether Vancouver have been the league 10 years — it’s a big game.”
Four current Timbers — Marcelin, Bright Dike, Kalif Alhassan and Steve Purdy — played in that October playoff match. So did injured defender Kevin Goldthwaite and midfielder Ryan Pore, who is currently on loan to the Montreal Impact.
General manager/technical director Gavin Wilkinson was the coach last season, and had numerous clashes with the ’Caps as Timbers player and coach dating back to 2001. The fact that the clubs entered MLS together this season only adds to the competitiveness of the Northwest rivalry, Wilkinson said.
“It’s a very, very important game for us,” Wilkinson said. “I hold it in the same regard as (the rivalry with) Seattle.”
Marcelin said the players understand the stakes.
“Vancouver is a challenge, like the Seattle game, so we have to be focused and positive all the time,” Marcelin said.
Staying enthusiastic might be a challenge for Portland, which is trying to keep its playoff chances afloat during a difficult stretch of five matches in 13 days. Playing a Cascadia Cup rival at home should infuse energy into the team.
“Anytime you get back home to play here is a special occasion,” Spencer said.
Coming off of losses at Houston and Kansas City in the previous six days, the Timbers sit five points out of the last playoff spot with 10 regular-season matches remaining.
“Nobody feels as bad as the players and the coaching staff do right now,” Spencer said. “We want to be successful here. We’ve got great support, and we’re trying our very best to bring as much success and good times to the club.”
No one in the Timbers camp is viewing the difficult August schedule as an excuse for dropping from playoff consideration, Spencer emphasized.
“This is a stage right now where you have to dig deep,” the coach said. “The games are coming thick and fast. They don’t get any easier. They don’t become any less pressurized, because we want desperately to get to the playoffs.”
When Vancouver came to Portland for that second-division playoff match in October, Portland needed to score at least twice to extend its season. The math and the stakes are different this time, but the solution for Portland is the same: put the ball in the goal.
“The key to the game is us putting the ball in the back of the net,” Spencer said. “Goals win games, and it’s important that if we get the chances, you’ve got to strike and make the goalkeeper work and put the ball in the back of the net.”
• To win the Cascadia Cup trophy, which goes to the head-to-head winner in matches among Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, the Timbers must win today, and on Oct. 2 at Vancouver. They also need Vancouver to get a win or tie in its remaining match with Seattle.
• At noon on Sunday, the Timbers and Whitecaps play a MLS Reserve League Match at Jeld-Wen Field. A crowd of at least 9,000 is anticipated. Tickets cost $10 and all seating is general admission.
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