The Portland Timbers knew the start of the 2019 season would be full of challenges, opening the league schedule with 12 straight road games while Providence Park undergoes extensive renovations.
But with just one point out of a possible nine, they're in need of a result to prevent falling too far behind in the Western Conference standings as they travel to Los Angeles on Sunday to face the Galaxy, who will have their best player back from injury.
Giovanni Savarese's squad opened with a 3-3 draw in frigid Colorado and were blown out by formidable Los Angeles FC the following week. But a surprising 3-0 loss to expansion FC Cincinnati before the international break has left the Timbers with some early-season urgency, not even four months after an MLS Cup final appearance.
The good news for Portland is that they proved last year that they can overcome a slow start. The 2018 campaign began 1-5-4, but they responded by going over three months before losing another game, and over four months without losing a league match.
"Right now, the results aren't good, but I think the team is prepared to change that," midfielder Diego Chara said. "We worked hard this week, and we will be ready for the next game."
Portland has been plagued by concentrated bursts of poor play more than consistent failure. The Timbers trailed FC Cincinnati 1-0 to start the second half, then conceded two goals and received a red card in just a nine-minute span, putting the game quickly out of reach.
"I think if you look at the games, the last games, without the five-, six-minute stretches where we allowed too many goals, the games look completely different," team captain Diego Valeri said. "I think if we can prevent that - improve in those moments - we're going to have a much better chance to change our course and start making the difference we need on the scoreboard."
The Galaxy (2-1-0) will have goal-scoring machine Zlatan Ibrahimovic back in the lineup after a two-game absence due to a left Achilles injury.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto's team split the two games without the Swedish striker, losing to FC Dallas 2-0 then beating Minnesota United 3-2 before the week off.
Ibrahimovic, who has scored 23 goals in 28 MLS matches, had a full week of training but wasn't sure if he would be fit enough to play a full 90 minutes after three weeks off.
"I don't know. I'll have to wait and see during the game," Ibrahimovic said. "It's going better. I'm feeling more and more confident."
Updated March 29, 2019