So spoke Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson in anticipation of his team’s opening game in the Simple Invitational Sunday against the host Timbers. The tournament consists of three doubleheaders to be played at Providence Park from Sunday to Feb. 28. The three MLS participants will stream the games on their Web sites.
Chicago and Norwegian club Stabaek are also in the field as preseason preparations near their conclusion, yet any meeting of the Western Conference and Cascadia Cup rivals carries some extra importance.
Last year, Vancouver edged into the playoffs at Portland’s expense despite losing two late-season games to the Timbers. Just one point separated the teams and both have taken steps to bolster their chances for 2015.
Robinson’s most significant offseason acquisition is Uruguayan striker Octavio Rivero, who has scored three goals in four preseason games and so far looks worth of the Young Designated Player slot he occupies. The Caps’ total of 42 goals in 2014 was six fewer than any other playoff team, and less reliance on Pedro Morales, who won Newcomer of the Year honors by scoring 10 goals and registering 12 assists, is imperative.
Former Timbers defender Pa Modou Kah and ex-TFC forward Robert Earnshaw are among the players battling for a spot on the roster. Robinson says he may try to field his first XI in the tournament finale against Chicago on Feb. 28. He expects some edginess in the opener.
“I think even a Portland staff game might have feeling in it,” Robinson told reporters on Thursday. “It’s a rivalry game. It’s a preseason game, so results don’t really matter, but performances do. My players are fighting to get into the team.”
The Timbers are bolstered by the return of defender Liam Ridgewell, who wrapped up his loan spell with Wigan Athletic last weekend. Ridgewell played 15 league games after arriving last July – the Timbers were 8-3-4 during that run – and led the back line to four shutouts in the last six games.
“We left last season doing very well,” he said. “We won a lot of games and got a lot of clean sheets at the back end of the season, so we'll be looking to try and get back into that and start doing that again.”
Ridgewell got in six League Championship games with Wigan and has arrived fit and sharp. He took over the team captaincy last September when a broken leg sidelined midfielder Will Johnson and his leadership will be needed, as both Johnson and Diego Valeri (torn ACL) are far from ready to return. Johnson will be out until late March or early April, Valeri is sidelined until May.
During a three-game trip to Arizona earlier this month the Timbers beat Sporting Kansas City (2-0) and tied Houston (1-1) and San Jose (0-0). Head coach Caleb Porter used more than 20 players in each of those games and even before the team left Arizona he was looking ahead to Vancouver.
“We’re in a really good spot,” said Porter. “I’m very encouraged by what I’m seeing in all aspects. The chemistry is tremendous. Mentality-wise: tremendous. Physically: very good. Tactically: very good. A few little tweaks which we’ll address here in the next week or so and then we’ll hopefully make the next jump when we play Vancouver.”
The Simple Invitational will also likely pair up Ridgewell and former RSL stalwart Nat Borchers for the first time.
Chicago set a dubious record last year by tying 18 games in the first season under former San Jose head coach Frank Yallop. An extensive roster makeover and two-game trip to England, where it tied Norwich City, 0-0, and defeated Queens Park Rangers, 1-0, set up its three games in Portland. It starts off against Stabaek and former Fire head coach Bob Bradley on Sunday.
Like Vancouver, Chicago struggled with scoring last year. It managed just 41 goals and never recovered from the loss of 2013 Mike Magee, who netted seven goals in 14 games before undergoing hip surgery that ended his season. Designated Player signing Kennedy Igboananike and Quincy Amarikwa, top scorer in 2014 with only eight, are spearheading the revival.
Harry Shipp led the team in assists last year as a rookie with six and is sorting out his midfield role with Razvan Cocis, who played 10 games in 2014 after arriving in July. The other DP signings -- Ghanaian striker David Accam and Scottish winger Shaun Maloney -- are both are projected to be vital contributors, so Chicago comes to Portland with more unanswered questions than its two MLS compatriots.
“[The club] did an incredible job of bringing in guys who are very good, and a group of guys who are kind of soldiers,” said Magee, who has yet to participate fully in training. “It doesn't hurt bringing in a couple more Chicago guys who are incredible additions, Shaun Maloney's obviously going to be a joy to play with, and you’re seeing the young guys raising the bar. It can only help.”
Stabaek finished ninth in the Norwegian first division (Tippeligaen) last year. Its season doesn’t start until April, so Bradley is not under the same time crunch as the MLS teams.