It seems each year during the regular season at least one team steps up during the regular season to look like a playoff front runner, only to fade when the playoffs come. Last year was remarkable. Here were the top four teams on points at the end of last season:
- San Jose (66)
- Kansas City (63)
- DC United (58)
- New York (57)
Calling each of those teams a "Pretender" might be harsh, but only one of those teams (DC United) even won a playoff series. Instead it was the 8th (LA Galaxy) and 9th (Houston Dynamo) place teams competing in the title game. It can be difficult to predict playoff success based on MLS Regular Season performance.
Instead, you have to look under the covers a bit. Here are the cases for why Portland is a legitimate title contender this season, and corresponding counter cases for why they might still be a pretender - capable of making the playoffs, but not ready to do damage in them.
CONTENDER CASE 1: THE ATTACK - The 2013 Timbers are a chance creating machine. Fueled by Valeri and Nagbe and a capable supporting cast, the Timbers create the 4th most chances per game in MLS. At 14.53 chances per game, the Timbers trail only Chicago, Real Salt Lake, and Kansas City in Shots per Game.
PRETENDER CASE 1: DEFENSE - Our goals against numbers are low. We currently concede 1.07 Goals per Game, good enough for 6th best defense in the league. But those of us who watch this team know our best defense is possession. Injuries to our central defense and vulnerable outside defenders mean the Timbers back line is vulnerable and prone to mistakes.
CONTENDER CASE 2: GOALS - The Timbers lead the league in overall scoring (25 Goals) and goal differential (+9). And Portland is second only to Montreal in Goals scored per game, at 1.67. Perhaps most encouraging is that Portland has more multiple goal scorers than any other team in the league. So defenses will not be able to key on one player (take last year's Earthquakes, for example) and shut Portland down.
The Timbers are getting goals from the forwards, wide attackers, attacking midfielders, and even Will Johnson is stepping up to get a few of his own. It's true. You can't stop us. We are the Rose City. At least few teams have been able to so far, anyway.
PRETENDER CASE 2: EFFICIENCY - It's one thing to score in the regular season. It's another to score against the better defenses you will face in the playoffs. Bottom line is you get fewer chances in the playoffs, so you had better convert the chances you get. The Timbers are OK, but far from elite. Montreal only requires 7 shots to score a goal, leading the league in efficiency. We saw what they did to us with limited opportunities.
Currently the Timbers need 8.72 shots to get a goal, making us the 8th most efficient team in the league. As we saw against Dallas, the Timbers waste a lot of chances in front of goal. And our forwards' career scoring records don't exactly scream that this is an anomaly. In order to score, they need a lot of shots. A lot of shots they probably won't get in the playoffs.
CONTENDER CASE 3: PLAYERS AND COACHES - No stats here, just my observations. The Timbers have what most MLS observers consider the best young coach in the league. Porter showed at Akron he is capable of taking good teams deep into tournaments, and capable of winnig it all.
We also have a well-rounded roster, with players all over the field having great seasons. Who is our MVP? Valeri can make a case. So could Nagbe. Maybe Ricketts is making the best case of all. Or is it one of our midfielders, Will Johnson and Diego Chara, who do the dirty work that make this team tick?
The Timbers are a case of a good coach having the right players to implement his system. When everything is firing, we can beat anyone.
PRETENDER CASE 3: STARS - Playoff time is star time. For the past two seasons, the playoffs meant it was time for Landon Donovan, David Beckham, and Robbie Keane to take over. Houston saw Brad Davis and Will Bruin rise to the occasion in the East. Seattle appears to be primed for a deep run, as much as it hurts to admit it. They have solid depth and the type of play makers who make the differene in the playoffs.
Who will step up for the Timbers? Or will the team continue to be the star?
We are obviously a ways away from knowing whether we can yet truly contend. We have reasons to be excited. We have reasons to be cautious. Time will tell.