PORTLAND, Ore. — Heading into Thursday night’s road game against the Portland Timbers, the players of Orlando City knew they’d be facing one of the toughest challenges in MLS.
That challenge didn’t come on the pitch; it came from the stadium itself. Even in a losing season, Portland fans turn out in droves to support their team, selling out the newly renovated Providence Park.
Since the expansion was completed in May, the Timbers have played five home games, winning three and drawing a fourth. Two of those home victories were four-goal blowouts; all of the games drew sell-out crowds of over 25,000 fans.
In opposing conferences, the two teams aren’t guaranteed to play each other every season, and Orlando City can go several season without traveling to Portland for a game. The midweek game became a source of excitement for Orlando City, which was eager to play in a hostile environment.
“I don’t think it’s intimidating, I think it’s just fun,” Kljestan said. “To see the way the city has taken to its team, to see the ownership of that team and everything that they’ve done, it’s a really fun place to play.”
Some of the rookies were more nervous than excited, intimidated by an environment that few places in the league can provide. Veterans such as Kljestan took it upon themselves to calm those nerves leading into high-octane games such as Thursday night.
The key in high-energy stadiums such as Providence Park, Kljestan said, is to understand that the team is playing against the crowd as well as their opponent. The ability to silence the stadium is just as powerful of a tool for the away team as the roaring crowds are for the home team.
“When you play in a place that’s got a really energized crowd, and you score an away goal and it gets dead quiet — that’s the best feeling in the world,” Kljestan said. “I think that’s the message: go out and have fun and enjoy this atmosphere. Not every game you play in MLS is like that.”
For coach James O’Connor, the focus of the trip was balancing his team’s excitement with the necessity to focus on the road. Away games were a surprising strong suit for the Lions at the start of the season — while the team struggled to defend its home field, it picked up points on the road to keep out of the bottom rung of the conference.
Heading into Thursday, O’Connor hoped to allow his team to have fun while still taking the game seriously.
“I think of all the teams, when you look at Portland, the atmosphere they have with the new stadium is something the players are really excited about,” O’Connor said. “I think it’s games like that with big atmospheres that you want to go and enjoy it but you want to make sure you create a very competitive game.”