The time for projects is over. The time for rebuilding is over. The time for good performances and footnotes and caveats is over. You could see it writhing inside Caleb Porter Saturday night at Jeld-Wen Field. The need to win. The time for results has arrived.
Porter is a clearly a competitive guy, a cocky guy, and recently, with things not going his way, an increasingly whiny guy. All great coaches believe in themselves more than anyone, and with a "slump" (remember Gavin Wilkinsonmaggedon last year, anyone) looming over an increasingly stagnant Timbers team, Porter was not about to walk into another press conference talking about how his team hadn’t won since the middle of July.
No Will Johnson? No Frederic Piquonne? Too bad. Porter had to win against Dallas. The former Akron coach’s opposition, however, had to win as well. In just two months, Schelles Hyndman’s team had fallen from first place to seventh in the Western Conferences (speaking of slumps), and Dallas had not won a game in 11 outings.
There have been a few Timbers games this year that have had playoff intensity on the field. The home game against San Jose in April, the home game against Dallas in June, and against LA in July, but in those games, both teams wanted to win. In this game, both teams needed to win.
It was obvious from watching Porter, wound tighter than a yo-yo, erupting over innocuous over tackles. It was obvious from the Timbers’ impressive focus, save for a moment after Ryan Johnson’s opener, and you could sense it in the way the Timbers restless attacking core patiently restrained themselves from trying to score a third goal, settling for milking the clock and acquainting themselves with the corner flags. A mature Timbers team played Dallas, and that team knew they couldn’t chance throwing away an extremely important three points.
Maturity has been a bit of a bugaboo this year for the Timbers. Portland has struggled with turning in complete performances. They’ve struggled with putting teams away and getting three points instead of one. They’ve struggled with starting slow and giving up early goals. Many times this year, it’s looked like the Timbers’ first time to the rodeo. Not Saturday night.
Portland knew they needed to take the game to a beleaguered Dallas team early and often – any side that hasn’t won since the start of summer isn’t going to have a whole lot of energy to come from behind and chase a game. The Timbers needed to start fast, and that’s exactly what they did.
It was clear from the get-go that Dallas couldn’t deal with the collective creative genius of Portland’s central attacking trio. Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri were men among boys. Three players that always stand out above whoever they face in MLS, were simply playing a different game than everyone else on the field Saturday night.
Chara’s industriousness and feel for the game are a marvel, while Valeri played like a wily number 10 and Nagbe killed Dallas again. All three could play in Europe, but all three are in Portland long-term, and that’s why this team is a playoff contender.
It was also fun watching Ryan Johnson. Portland’s number nine has really grown in stature this year, and his thundering goal off an exquisite Valeri corner in the 24th minute was always coming. At the beginning of the year, people thought that if Piquionne played healthy and committed, he’d be the starting striker. Now, I’m not so sure.
Portland switched off momentarily after Johnson’s goal, and it’s an old cliche that you’re at your most vulnerable in soccer in the minutes after scoring. But Dallas’ leveling of the terms was short-lived, because Portland’s trio delivered just seconds later.
In a play that started with Chara – 5’7 Diego Chara – winning a contested header in midfield, and ended with Valeri sliding Darlington Nagbe through on goal for an expert finish, everything went right. At that moment, you felt the Timbers could score seven or eight on the night.
It could have been a slug-fest – Dallas drew 3-3 with LA the week before, but the Timbers had all the goals they needed. What followed the early flurry of scoring was as composed a finish to a close and tightly contested Timbers game we have ever seen from this franchise. Credit to Dallas: They threatened offensively and played some good stuff, but the Timbers were never in any real danger of surrendering their lead.
As the clock ticked down, it was all hands on deck. When things started getting rough, Donovan Ricketts took a seat in his box complaining of cramps and halting play, while looking like the most relaxed guy in the stadium. Portland took time off the clock and kept their shape, and when the final whistle blew, Porter pumped his fists to the crowd like John Spencer used to do in days gone by.
For Porter and his team, it’s a results business now. Portland is going to be exhausted at the end of the season, whenever that may be, but for now, it’s don’t look down, don’t look back. The Timbers can move into a tie for first place if they can beat Real Salt Lake at home on Wednesday, and then they play Seattle in a showcase MLS game at CenturyLink Field on Sunday. That’s just the beginning of the season run-in.
Portland stopped the slump, 2-1 on Saturday, and they were deserved winners. Suddenly, things are looking quite a bit rosier. But there’s a long way to go, and every match from here on in is going to be as intense and important. Porter’s message to his team should be clear: Just win, baby.