Prioritizing in Portland

The best way to be wrong is to enjoy it, and since Friday night's game between the Timbers and the Union looks to be one of the most important of the early season, I am pleasantly surprised at this improbable turn of events.

LA-New York? Strictly MLS 1.0. The league isn't even hyping this match up as sadistically as it did last year, and let's face it, that match won't make or ruin either team this year. They're both going to the playoffs.

Portland and Philadelphia, though - and this is probably a sign that I haven't really gotten the message on these teams - but they need the points. The Union needs to do business against expansion teams. Portland needs to win at home. Both teams think they can get over on the other, and both are probably right.

Also in pleasant contrast to Galaxy-Red Bulls, Portland-Philadelphia offers the fewest celebrity players this side of Salt Lake City. The stars do not align. This is not the world of Red Bull. The only designated player on either side is Diego Chara, and I had to double-check which team he played for.

It's reassuring that MLS is able to give us a compelling match in early May in a small market without any of the bells and whistles we're usually fed in order to manufacture excitement.

Unfortunately, this might be a defensive battle for students of the game. Portland scores like crazy at home, but Mondragon is giving up a goal every three games so far. Sadly, the Union are scoring less than a goal a game. Nowak isn't exactly the sort of coach who cares about entertaining the customers in road games, either. But it's still going to be an important game.

It's also going to be interesting to see whether the Timbers really are being held aloft by their home fans. I tend to resist arguments like this - crummy teams can have great fans, too. But for some reason, Civic Stadium - sorry, Some Corporation I've Never Heard Of And Don't Care About Stadium - has become a little fortress.

Even that shouldn't be surprising, least of all to one who was at the now-legendary Costa Rica qualifier in 1997. But I'm still operating under the theory that even Steve Sampson's US National Team was better than the Timbers. (The Nats tied in Azteca that year, and how have the Timbers looked on the road so far?) I'm not surprised Portland's home field advantage is wonderful to watch, even on television. I just can't believe it's affecting the on-field results that much.

The downside of Portland and Philadelphia doing well - two of the most likely teams to take the Open Cup seriously are already out. In fact, the Timbers pulled a Bruce Arena, and walked the plank, starting their reserves against the Earthquakes. This is what John Strong on the Tims' website said before the game:

Which line of reasoning failed to impress John Spencer:

I usually curse teams who disrespect the Open Cup. It is the one living link to a history that for decades was lost completely. And it's the one tournament that links every team in the country - from amateur teams all the way up to the mighty Seattle Sounders.

That's the other reason I thought Portland would dive in - because Seattle did. The Sounders either (1) bought into the romance of the tournament, (2) realized they actually make money in their home games, or (3) saw that the Open Cup is by far the easiest trophy for an MLS team to win these days. At least two of those apply to the Timbers as well.

Instead, MLS play-in games have become exercises in the Prisoner's Dilemma - can I get away with starting reserves? Will the other team start their reserves? Can my scrubs beat theirs?

The Earthquakes are traditionally a godawful Cup team, so I could see Spencer rolling the dice there. But it's amazing that the Union loomed larger in his sight than the Open Cup.

Unfortunately - or fortunately for Timbers fans - good performances at home in MLS proper has made that playoff spot temptingly attainable. If the home crowd doesn't carry Portland to big, big wins this past month, I think San Jose gets worked over this week.

And...I hate to go here, but two of their division rivals had important players shelved for months. Seattle's difficulty is Portland's opportunity. In fact, that may be the overriding desire for the Timbers - not the playoff spot, not the trophy - just finishing ahead of Seattle.

So the Open Cup was tossed aside. Again, that usually sets my teeth on edge, because I take the disrespect to our history personally as a non-playing shut-in fan. I'm certainly not looking forward to watching the Galaxy tank in the Cup again this year - they were in a scoreless tie at halftime last year at home to St. Louis, for crying out loud. That Puerto Rico result didn't come out of nowhere.

But pragmatists like Arena, and Spencer, wouldn't be making those choices if they didn't have very good reasons. If the Open Cup was worthy of their attention and resources - and not simply in the dewy-eyed sepia-toned Ken Burns documentary way you and I look at it - then the reserves would be starting against Philly on FSC this week.

This is still on the USSF, whose tournament it is. It's been an afterthought for so many teams for so many years, it's amazing that the Fed has convinced MLS teams to compete at all. We've gotten some great moments and fueled some terrific rivalries through the LHUSOC, but that's been strictly for hardcore historians.

I'd like to see MLS teams motivated, and I'd like to see them all play lower-division teams a round or two earlier. But that probably makes assumptions about lower-division teams that aren't warranted. A shot at embarrasing an MLS team is one thing, but flying across the country for a miniscule payday and a potential beating can be a serious budget-buster.

While it's irritating when Bruce Arena snubs the Cup, Bruce Arena snubs everything. The USOC should have been right in the Timbers' sweet spot. I think it's time for me, at least, to stop blaming teams for not living up to the standards of supporters (who, in my case, don't even support them).