PORTLAND — The Portland Timbers have plenty of work to do in a short time if they are going to make the Major League Soccer playoffs in their inaugural season — even more if they are to earn a home playoff date.
But Friday’s match against the Houston Dynamo promises to bring playoff intensity to Jeld-Wen Field.
This last regular-season match in Portland has the feel of an elimination game.
The Timbers have three games left and trail Houston and New York by three points for the final wild-card playoff berth.
A win over the Dynamo would lift the Timbers into a tie with Houston and New York and move them five points ahead of D.C. United. Anything less than a win will make the playoffs unlikely for Portland.
It is a test the Timbers seem to be embracing.
“It’s the biggest game for this franchise up to this time. It’s a game that as a player you want to be a part of,” Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury said.
The Timbers entered several matches this season carrying big expectations, from the April home opener against Chicago to the matches with rival Seattle and star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy. So inexperience shouldn’t derail these Timbers, despite the team’s youth.
“The good thing about it is, with us selling out the stadium every week they’re all big games,” coach John Spencer said. “I’d probably say this is the most important game of the season for us now. If we get three points, then the D.C. game (on Wednesday) becomes the most important game of the season.
“We’re healthy and we’re ready for it,” the coach added. “I think guys are relaxed and ready to play.”
Aside from the stakes, the connection between the Dynamo and the Timbers add spice to this match. Spencer was an assistant coach at Houston prior to being hired to guide the Timbers. Portland defenders Lovel Palmer and Mike Chabala were acquired from Houston in a midseason deal that sent Adam Moffat to the Dynamo.
None of that history will have a direct impact on this game, the players say. Instead, this is being framed as a younger Portland team challenging an established Houston group.
“They’re an experienced bunch. They’ve been in this position before, so they know what it’s going to take,” Palmer said.
The Timbers bring some advantages to the fight, Palmer said.
“I’m sure that the athleticism and the fight and the will to win from the Timbers will prevail,” Palmer said.
The game might be decided by who best executes restarts. Both teams have been successful converting from free kicks and corner kicks, with Brad Davis handling free kicks for Houston and Jewsbury in that role for Portland.
“We’ve got to be locked in, make sure we have our guys (marked) and win those assignments,” Jewsbury said. “I think that’s going to be critical, and can we get one on our attacking set pieces where we’ve been pretty good all year.”
A ninth-year veteran, Jewsbury has played in nine playoff matches, including one MLS Cup, with Kansas City. The 30-year-old noted that wild-card teams, including Real Salt Lake and Colorado the past two seasons, have won titles.
That is evidence of what a win over Houston could spark.
“I think we have a special team here, a group of guys that fights for one another,” Jewsbury said. “Any time you can get a chance at the playoffs — especially for me at my age — you wonder: Could this team be the one that wins the championship?
“I think we have (championship) qualities here,” the captain said. “It’s just a matter of getting to the playoffs and then it’s another whole season.”