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ON SOCCER/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Playoff spot depends on result of Sunday match with Quakes

The Timbers enter their final regular-season game Sunday controlling their playoff destiny.

Win or draw against San Jose (1 p.m. at Providence Park) and Portland will be in the MLS playoffs for a third consecutive year. There's even a way the Timbers can lose and back into the tournament.

How long they can stay is a matter for another column.

We knew going in this would be a strange season in Portland, given the schedule.

Finishing with the second-best road record in the West despite opening with 12 games away from home should have set up the Timbers to place near the top of the Western Conference.

But they have muddled through one of the worst home seasons in their MLS history. Perhaps they are guilty of taking their home-heavy summer schedule for granted. In any case, they don't have the attacking chemistry, confidence or quality to break down committed defenses.

To be fair, the late-season absences of two designated players would challenge any MLS club.

Striker Brian Fernandez has been on the field for only 206 of a possible 540 minutes over the past six games because of illness and will be suspended for San Jose unless the unlikely happens and the league overturns his red card from Sunday at Sporting Kansas City.

Sebastian Blanco, the Timbers' best player, missed almost three full games in mid-September with a calf injury.

One ingredient that cannot be questioned is the passion of club leadership. The Timbers have been hit with fines late in the season, including the $100,000 MLS docked owner/president Merritt Paulson for his on-field behavior after the Sept. 25 draw with New England.

The Timbers can question a number of refereeing decisions that have gone against them. But it is because of their own shortcomings that those decisions mattered.

Still, thanks to spiraling finishes from San Jose (five losses in a row) and FC Dallas (winless in four in a row), the Timbers are in the postseason if they take care of business on Sunday. So, unless they are as physically and emotionally gassed as they have at times looked, it's fair to expect them to play with a level of energy and urgency that has not been consistently there this season.

n Barring something incredibly wacky, any playoff games for Portland will be on the road.

In that event, will Sunday be the last time Diego Valeri plays in Portland as a member of the Timbers?

My guess is Valeri and the Timbers — who have the option to pick up his contract for one more season — will find a solution to a squabble that last week became public via reports from ESPN's Taylor Twellman and The Athletic's Sam Stejskal.

Asked after last week's draw with New England, Valeri said that out of respect for his teammates and for Timbers fans, he would not discuss his future until after the season.

"I want to be focused on (the remaining games). We'll talk about that later, when the season is done," he said.

Early against New England, the Timbers Army spent several minutes chanting "Pay Valeri!"

The question is, at what price does a Diego Valeri in his mid-30s work for the Timbers?

According to the MLS Players Association, Valeri is making $2.42 million this season. He is the 14th highest-paid player in MLS (Blanco at $2.85 million is Portland's highest paid player and earns the 10th most in the league).

Valeri's 16 assists are a career high and rank second in the league this season. But his eight goals are a career low for a fully healthy season and — unlike two years ago, when his 21 goals pretty much carried Portland to the top of the conference — Valeri was not able to rescue Portland as it suffered through three home games without scoring a goal.

What can the Timbers expect from Valeri, who turns 34 on May 1, in 2020? They can expect to be a better team with him than without him. But how much better? And, with needs for more dynamic attacking players and more security at central defense, Portland understandably wants Valeri to play for less than a designated player roster slot.

The mechanisms of roster building in MLS are murky — and will be all the more unclear in this offseason with the collective bargaining agreement expiring.

In a salary-cap league, teams that reward players for past glory are teams that become irrelevant.

No one should blame Valeri for not embracing a pay cut. The man will be on the ring of honor in Providence Park, and soccer players have to maximize their income while they can.

But I don't blame the Timbers for taking a hard look at Valeri's future value.

The top teams in the league — Atlanta United last season and Los Angeles FC this year — are riding multiple young stars to great success while the Timbers are scuffling just to squeeze into the playoffs.

The Maestro said he didn't hear the "Pay Valeri!" chant, but that "it makes me happy."

He said the supporters understand that he loves them as much as they love him.

"They are the reason why we play, why we want to win trophies and why we keep working," Valeri said.

Let's hope Valeri and the Timbers can continue their winning partnership.

n As tough as the home stretch has been for Portland's MLS club, the Thorns have had a more difficult time.

Sunday's 2-0 loss in Tacoma to Reign FC means the Thorns won't be at home for the NWSL semifinals. Their last 2019 match at Providence Park will be Oct. 12 against the Washington Spirit.

And, unless they rediscover some mojo, they won't have a serious shot of winning at Chicago or North Carolina in the playoffs.

The Thorns averaged two goals per game through their first 19 matches, but have scored only two in their last four.

Fatigue is a big part of that fade. The nine Thorns on World Cup rosters have had a long, intense year. The want-to is there. The crispness we expect from a Mark Parsons side is not.

In the loss at Tacoma, Portland struggled to string more than two passes together or win battles for possession. As Parsons noted after the setback, the fatigue is as much emotional as physical.

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@pauldanzer


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