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Timbers prepare to end road woes

Weather, travel can make winning away a challenge
by: Christopher Onstott Darlington Nagbe (right) of the Portland Timbers weaves through the Seattle Sounders in a road match last month. The Timbers have yet to break through in winning fashion away from Jeld-Wen Field, but they can do so Saturday at FC Dallas.

In his 1957 classic, “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac made traveling seem like a glorious endeavor, filled with unlimited possibilities of happiness and adventure. In their inaugural MLS campaign, the Portland Timbers have found little other than disappointment on the road. A typical Timbers road trip has been all too predictable: leave Portland, lose a match, come home. Throw in two draws, and the club’s 0-4-2 road record has been about as happy for Portland as if Kerouac’s hero had crashed his car coming out of the driveway, or made it down the block and run out of gas. The Timbers (5-6-3, 18 points), who will play at FC Dallas on Saturday, sit in seventh place in the Western Conference. They are not out of the playoff picture. But if they want to climb in the rankings, they will need to start winning in places other than Jeld-Wen Field. Eleven of Portland’s 20 remaining league matches will be out of town. “We’re going to have to win a couple of games on the road to get into the playoffs,” Timbers coach John Spencer says. “I don’t know if there’s ever been a team that’s made the playoffs having not won a game on the road.” Trials of being on the road, for any club, go beyond just taking the pitch before hostile fans. There is the long travel, the time-zone differences and the change of climate, as well. “The majority of your road games are such a long trip,” Timbers goalkeeper Troy Perkins says. “It’s such a different environment. Now we’re going to go to Dallas, Texas, where it’s probably going to be 90 degrees at game time at night.” Perkins says dealing well with issues such as the weather comes down to having a professional mental attitude. “It’s all about being professional and preparing for that,” he says. “But it’s also a psychological thing. It’s just as hot for them as it is for us.” Part of what hurts Portland on the road is that it is such a young side, with many players who are not accustomed to grueling MLS trips. It can be hard for those players to find a comfortable routine before matches. “You’re in the hotel all day, where if it’s a home game, there’s things you can go do, you know the area,” rookie midfielder Darlington Nagbe says. “If you want to go to a restaurant that you know, you go there. But on the road, you’re in your hotel the whole time.” Nagbe says he and Portland’s other young players are beginning to adjust. “It’s definitely (about) getting comfortable,” Nagbe says. “You get into a routine on the road and know what your body needs and what you want.” Scottish defender Adam Moffat points out that it is a lot easier to be a road warrior in countries smaller than America. “With America being such a big country, you’ve got the time zones, and you’ve got different temperatures in different places, so you take all of that into consideration,” Moffat says. “It’s harder over here. “In Scotland, we never got on a plane once. We’d just be on the bus everywhere. And you’re close to every game. Every game is within an hour or so. It’s always the same time zone, the weather is almost the same in every part of the country. So it’s different here.” Spencer has marked his first year at the Timbers’ helm with a no-excuses attitude. He takes that a step further by saying he believes playing on the road can be easier than playing at home. “You’re in a hotel, you’re away from your family,” Spencer says. “There are more distractions at home when the wife wants you to go shopping on a Friday and stuff like that. On the road, you should be more focused, in a sense.” Spencer also feels there is more pressure to win at home than on the road. “There’s more pressure playing here at home with the environment that we play in,” he says. “You’ve got to find that inner motivation, and if the motivation is to get your first road win of the season then that’s what it is.” Also, in MLS, games are generally about a week apart, giving teams time to return home between games, with few exceptions. By contrast, when Portland played in the United Soccer Leagues, the team regularly had several multi-game trips to the east or south, or Canada or Puerto Rico, with back-to-back outings at times in difficult conditions or high heat —a much tougher task. Perkins says he believes the Timbers have what it will take to start gathering points on the road —if they can come together and take the matches as they come. “Once we jell as a team, it doesn’t matter where we’re going to play,” Perkins says. “We’ve got to find our identity. We’re starting to get there. It’s going to come. “We can’t be push, push, push. We’ve got to take the pressure off ourselves, relax and enjoy what we do.”