After a long, arduous, and ultimately winless month-long road trip to start the 2018 MLS season, the Portland Timbers return to Providence Park to make their home debut this Saturday night against sophomore side Minnesota United (7:30 p.m., TV on ROOT Sports).
So long as the Timbers perform, it will be joyous occasion. If they fall behind, however, it's going to turn very tense very quickly.
Minnesota are leagues ahead of where they were at this time last year, when they gave up 20 goals in their first 15 games, but they've made an uneven start to the season nonetheless: there have been strong wins in Orlando and Chicago, as well as bad losses in San Jose, New York, and last time out against Atlanta.
The Loons were handed a boost two weeks ago in the arrival of their first-ever Designated Player, Colombian playmaker Darwin Quintero. Minnesota was off last weekend, so Quintero could make his debut on Saturday.
But whether that happens or not, The Loons will feel like they have a point to prove after what happened here last year. Minnesota actually won the possession battle in that game, and were within a goal with ten minutes to go before the floodgates opened for the Timbers.
The concern is on the defensive side. Minnesota hasn't defended well on the road this year, and both of their starting fullbacks — fan favorite Fin Jerome Thiesson and former Seattle Sounder Tyrone Mears — have been struggling with injuries.
It's not especially clear how Giovani Savarese, still in search of his first top flight win, will approach this game.
The emphasis towards the end of the road trip was shoring up the defense and freeing Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri to work in the middle of the field in a hybrid 4-3-2-1. That look did plenty of good, especially for Blanco, but it's a fairly defensive setup.
If Savarese wants to play more on the front foot, changing back to the Timbers' standard 4-2-3-1 and moving Andy Polo's staring position up the field is the most likely route.
Then again, the Timbers haven't struggled to create offense the last two weeks, and Minnesota is more dangerous on the counter than in possession — in which case sitting in lower blocks and letting the Loons makes plenty of sense. We should get a sense fairly early of which route Savarese has chosen.
This much is simple: Portland has to win. It's one thing to drop points on the road, but with New York City looming next week and the pressure building on Savarese, Saturday night is going to be about getting the right result by any means necessary.
90 - Gleeson
2 - Powell
25 - Tuiloma
33 - Mabiala
16 - Valentin
21 - Chara
22 - Paredes
10 - Blanco
8 - Valeri
11 - Polo
9 - Adi
— Liam Ridgewell was set to return the eighteen last weekend in Orlando before an injury ruled him out. He's fit now, though, and it'll be fascinating to see what kind of response he gets when he's introduced before the game.
— Alvas Powell is fit as well after coming off late against Orlando with an injury, but Vytas might not be after limping out of last weekend's T2 game.
— Savarese has a decision to make up top, where neither Fanendo Adi nor Sam Armenteros have been convincing thus far this year. It's Adi's ability to occupy Minnesota's center backs that should get him the nod.
This game last year was memorable: the MLS season opener and Minnesota's MLS bow, it ended as a statement of intent from the Timbers.
Timbers 3, Loons 1. There's no place like home.