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No team has a more daunting early-season schedule than the Portland Timbers with 12 straight road matches to open the 2019 campaign. Judging by last season, that could be a major hurdle to overcome.
The Timbers play the first of that long stretch of away games Saturday against a Colorado Rapids team hoping offseason changes produce better results.
Due to renovations at Providence Park, Portland won't play its home opener until June 1 against Los Angeles FC. The stretch of 12 road games in a row to open a season is the longest in MLS history, besting Sporting Kansas City's 10-game trip in 2011.
While the Timbers will enjoy a home-heavy second half, they went just 4-8-5 on the road last regular season with only Real Salt Lake finishing with fewer away wins among Western Conference playoff teams. Helped by an 11-2-4 home mark, the Timbers finished fifth in the West and got past Dallas, Seattle and Kansas City in the postseason before falling to Atlanta in the MLS Cup.
With a terrific nucleus anchored by veteran midfielders Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Diego Chara, Portland should again be a force in the West. Valeri - the 2017 MLS MVP - had 10 goals and 12 assists last season before adding four goals and two assists through the playoffs. Blanco added 10 goals and 11 assists and Chara is a steadying presence heading into his ninth consecutive season with the Timbers.
Valeri has a goal in each of his last three matchups with the Rapids, while Blanco has a goal and six assists in four career meetings.
Portland would be greatly aided by more production from 22-year-old striker Jeremy Eboboisse, who had three goals and two assists in 15 matches in 2018.
Last season was one to forget for the Rapids, who finished 11th in the West with 31 points, a total better than only San Jose and Orlando. Colorado's 36 goals were the league's lowest total and its minus-27 goal differential was the worst in the conference.
In an effort to boost the sagging offense, Colorado went out and acquired proven goal-scorers Kei Kamara and Diego Rubio, and also added Benny Feilhaber to balance the midfield.
Kamara is one of the most accomplished scorers in MLS history with over 100 career goals, including 14 last season with Vancouver. Rubio had eight goals and six assists in 20 regular-season games for Sporting KC in 2018, and his goals-per-90-minute ratio trailed only Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Josef Martinez in that category.
"Kei and Diego were two main targets (this offseason)," Colorado coach Anthony Hudson told the team's official website. "Not only are they goal-scorers but they were high on our list because they know the league, score goals in the league and equally is important, they were both strong characters."
Colorado's most recognizable player is goalkeeper Tim Howard, who announced he'll be retiring at season's end. Howard made his MLS debut in 1998 and will leave as one of the United States' greatest at his position.
"I think this will be the most talented team in Rapids history, even more talented than when this team won the title in 2010," Howard said. "That puts the pressure on us."
The Timbers took both meetings against the Rapids last season and have won three of the past four matchups.
Updated February 28, 2019