PORTLAND — The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup can present a conundrum for Major League Soccer coaches.
Facing a lower-division opponent in a knockout match — as the Portland Timbers will do Wednesday when the Wilmington (N.C.) Hammerheads of USL Pro visit Jeld-Wen Field — offers an opportunity to give playing time to some lesser-used players. But, as Timbers fans know, lower-division teams often win.
Last season, eight of the 16 U.S.-based MLS teams lost in their first tournament match — including a Timbers loss to Cal FC that started a downward spiral that led to the firing of coach John Spencer.
That history doesn’t matter to current Timbers coach Caleb Porter. But on Tuesday he insisted that this tournament — in its 100th season — does matter.
“The measurement of a successful club is the ability to win trophies. As much as we’re encouraged by the direction we’re headed, this club hasn’t won any trophies in the MLS era,” Porter said.
To win this tournament, the Timbers need to win five games — without losing.
The single-elimination of this tournament makes it different from a mid-season MLS match, according to Timbers midfielder Will Johnson.
“I enjoy it,” Johnson said. “I think it’s big for this club to do big things in the tournament and take it seriously. Hopefully our performance will reflect that.”
Johnson expects to be on the field, but chances are some of the players who have been regular starters for MLS matches will be resting.
Porter never discusses his lineup decisions ahead of matches, but said that he feels like he has at least 16 starters on his roster, so the lineup that starts against the Hammerheads will be built to win.
“To win the game, that’s the No. 1 priority. But also if we can continue to build our depth, this is probably a good week to do that,” Porter said.
Johnson, a Toronto native, said being Canadian doesn’t diminish the significance of the U.S. Open Cup. He noted that soccer players are accustomed to playing in multiple competitions each year.
“In Europe you have three or four Cups and competitions,” Johnson said. “As the MLS fan becomes more knowledgeable, around the league you’re starting to see fans start to take this pretty seriously as well.”
To make sure his players take this seriously, Porter said he did mention to the team that in 2012 eight MLS clubs were beaten by lower-division clubs in their first Cup match.
“That’s not going to happen on my watch,” Porter said.