By John Marshall
With the 2020 MLS regular season just days away, it’s time for a round-up of Cascadia preseason action before the league’s 25th campaign kicks off on February 29th. An eventful winter left no shortage of storylines for our trio of clubs.
Hidden away behind closed-door friendlies and trips to California and Mexico, the club we’ve seen the least so far this preseason also faced the shortest off-season. However, Seattle Sounders have been plenty busy after winning their second MLS Cup in four years. Following an initial camp in Long Beach, California, the Rave Green flew to Mexico City to spend 12 days at Centro Alto Rendimiento,a high-performance training facility managed by the Mexican Football Federation. The visit represented the club’s best chance to prepare for a potential Semifinal-matchup with Liga MX side Tigres UANL in the CONCACAF Champions League. To get there, they’ll have to contend with C.D. Olimpia of Honduras first. The club flew straight to San Pedro Sula for the first leg of their Round of 16 tie from Mexico City.
A 2-2 tie in that first leg highlighted Seattle’s quality, but fitness was a major issue although an expected one. The visitors could only match Olimpia’s energy level for the first 25 minutes or so of the contest. Joao Paulo and Yeimar Gomez Andrade made their full debuts, with the former scoring the first goal of the game after only 6 minutes. It remains to be seen if Seattle can find their legs in time to lock down progression in the second leg, but on first glance it seems clear that Sounders again have the talent to challenge at the top of the Western Conference.
South down I-5, the Portland Timbers face a much friendlier start to their season than in 2019. With Providence Park’s renovation complete, the 25,000-seat cauldron will be ready to rock from March on this time around. The Green and Gold started their preseason matches in the warm auspices of Costa Rica, where three victories against Deportivo Saprissa, Municipal Grecia, and C.D. Herediano heralded a prominent start to their preparations. The group returned home for the renewal of their annual preseason tournament, with New England Revolution, Minnesota United, and Cascadia rivals Vancouver all participating as well.
The Timbers opened the tournament with a 2-1 win over Vancouver before losing 4-2 to Minnesota and 3-1 to the Revolution. Portland scored first in all three of the matches but couldn’t retain their lead in the final two games, leaving them with a disappointing finish to an otherwise impressive preseason.
Giovanni Savarese already has a fairly clear starting eleven to rely upon for the club’s 10th season in MLS and the stability that brings will be important as Portland looks to improve on last year’s 6th place finish in the Western Conference. With multiple new signings being incorporated into the club and high expectations in the Rose City, the pressure will be on Savarese’s side from the opening kick. Thankfully with no construction to worry about at Providence Park this year, the Timbers will get to open their season at home as they face Minnesota on Sunday, March 1st.
Over the border, the Vancouver Whitecaps preseason has been all about building in Marc Dos Santos’ second year in charge. After a dismal 2019 season for the ‘Caps, 2020 is about making improvements and developing young talent. Bringing Canadian National Team regular Lucas Cavallini into the squad from Liga MX side Puebla should help, adding a double-digit goal threat and an instant spark for the attack. However, veteran leadership remains an issue as only three players on the roster are 30 years or older. Patience will be necessary as Vancouver again put their hopes in the hands of a young group with relatively little MLS experience, talented as they may be. First and foremost on Vancouver’s mind will be improving on the 34 points they managed last season that saw them finish last in the Western Conference. Shrinking their -22 goal differential will be key to Vancouver righting the ship and challenging for a playoff position.
Their preseason results have been mixed this winter starting with a 1-1 draw to Columbus Crew and then a 4-1 win against FC Dallas, both matches taking place on the campus of UC San Diego. Three days later they faced the opposite result in Carson, California as LA Galaxy won 4-1. Next were three matches in Portland as they lost the first match of Timbers’ preseason tournament to the hosts 2-1 before winning 2-0 over the Revolution and 2-1 against Minnesota to close out their preseason.
Finishing in the top seven may well be an unattainable goal in 2020 given the strength of the conference, but Vancouver can lay the ground work for future success this season. As the league grows, it becomes more and more difficult to shake off a bad season and challenge at the top in the next. In a league built on the back of parity, this used to be a crucial and defining feature of the competition. Such is the league’s growth that a worst-to-first story doesn’t find the realm of possibility in 2020. You’ve gotta start somewhere, though, and that’s what the Whitecaps will look to do against the giants of the West.
Vancouver starts the 2020 MLS campaign off for Cascadia as they host Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, February 29th at 7:30 PM while Portland and Seattle play on Sunday, March 1st as Sounders will host Chicago Fire at Noon while the Timbers will close the opening weekend with a 4:30 PM match against Minnesota.