The Portland Timbers’ last regular season home game of the 2012 season was simply dreadful. There was no heartfelt tifo from the Timbers Army recognizing the players and coaches, instead there was a single sign, in spartan white and black that clearly said, "GW Out".
Around the grouchy Army, the stands were sparse, as the rain drizzled down. San Jose were the opponents, and they’d already clinched the Supporters’ Shield, while the Timbers had nothing to play for themselves. Chris Wondolowski was going for the all-time MLS single-season scoring record, but beyond that, it was an encounter devoid of intrigue, excitement or skill.
The game finished 1-1. The soccer was terrible. And for the fans that did walk out of Jeld-Wen Field on that Saturday in October, it was very hard to see a road back to competiveness. You could list the players worth keeping on one hand. You needed three hands to reel off the players who you hoped would never pull on the shirt again.
It was the only game in Portland MLS history in which Jeld-Wen Field wasn’t truly sold out. All the tickets had been sold, yes, but there was no argument to be made for all the seats being filled. It was a relief to be done with the season.
Just look how far we’ve come. One year and 33 games on, the Timbers clinched their first playoff spot on the day of the final regular season home game, leading the Western Conference with the least losses of any team in MLS.
The atmosphere around Jeld-Wen popped. There wasn’t a seat to be had, and the tifo before the game hit the spot. Playoffs was the word on everyone’s tongue. It was the central point of Will Johnson’s pregame announcement thanking fans for their support, and the lead question to players and the manager after the game.
Yes, Portland tied Real Salt Lake 0-0 to end the home season. But it was a faux end. In reality, it was just the end of the beginning.
The Timbers are guaranteed a top-three finish in the Western Conference, and by extension at least one home playoff game. Portland clinched with Seattle’s loss to FC Dallas before the Salt Lake game even kicked off, a cherry on top of a season that has been as remarkable and historic as it has been fun.
Portland has had one of the best turnarounds in MLS history, and on a night that served as little more than a primer for the final flourishes of 2013 to come, that’s what should be reflected upon.
In a million years, who would have thought that Caleb Porter would engineer a team in three months that can win MLS Cup?
How’d Porter do it? By refusing to accept anything less than excellence, all the time, every time the Timbers stepped on the pitch.
It’s a mentality beyond Porter’s "highs low and lows high" cliché. It’s been about building a culture on the field that has matched the supporters’ culture off of it.
Portland has a great team. These guys love each other. They’re easy to root for.
Porter came in with a game plan and executed. Out went Kris Boyd – Porter didn’t even need to meet the guy to know he’d have the Scot pack his bags and get out. Boyd never had the right attitude, he was never the right player for Porter’s system.
But Portland didn’t disavow high-profile oversees signings. Diego Valeri, of course, a Porter player through and through, but Mikael Silvestre and Frederic Piquionne, players who would work and contribute and never put themselves above the team.
There were shrewd signings that worked and a system that has grabbed players and pulled them in with ease and immediate results, but Porter’s genius lies in the confidence he has given the average players who have stepped up with career years.
Will Johnson? Porter made him captain and gave him huge responsibility in the team, and the result was a career-making year for Johnson and an All-Star start.
The man Johnson replaced as captain, Jack Jewsbury kept his head up, as Porter knew he would, and the impeccably even-keeled "club captain" has reinvented himself into a steady and sturdy outside-back.
Michael Harrington, Ryan Johnson, Donovan Ricketts, Futty Danso, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Kalif Alhassan, Ben Zemanski, Pa Moudu Kah, Rodney Wallace. All players considered past their best, before their best, or just plain mediocre, and all these players have had career years.
For Ricketts, it’s been a renaissance. Wallace has gone from a player struggling as a backup full-back to a player who has a very good chance of going to the World Cup. Success breeds success, winning breeds winning, and all that breeds good times.
Portland has been the place to be this year. Gavin Wilkinson has a role in the revival too, and instead of the man who walked dejectedly towards the Portland dugout in October 2012, he buoyantly jetted around the Jeld-Wen at full-time smiling and giving high-fives.
Yes, Portland struggled a bit on Saturday. No one takes the Timbers out of their game like Salt Lake, and no matter what Merritt Paulson says, this is Portland’s worst playoff matchup.
And yet for all of RSL’s possession, Portland came into the game late and were unlucky not to win. The Timbers improved when Piquonne entered to give the team a real presence up top. In the end, Salt Lake had Nick Rimando to thank for their point. For all their possession, Jason Kreis’ team didn’t have a single shot on goal.
It’s Chivas USA next, and then the sky is the limit. And for the Gambian contingent, the Akron contingent, the Premier League contingent, the Jamaica contingent, the budding Argentina contingent, and the veteran MLS contingent, you just wouldn’t bet on a loss coming any time soon. Chemistry is a huge part of any great team. The 2013 Timbers have it.
Saturday was a gorgeous night. And when you take a step back, so has this whole season. Porter has put together a textbook for success. The Timbers have turned 180 degrees.