The Portland Timbers have breezed through the offseason like a cheetah moving through the daisies on a warm spring day before the real hunting commences.
The drama, derision and uncertainty of 2012 is out of view. Portland now has in its playing and coaching staff enough harmony to be a string quartet.
Last offseason, there was a total clear-out as the organization recharged and rebooted itself. This year, the Timbers have been able to pick their spots, acquiring three starting-caliber players while losing no key players in the process. There has been a shuffling of role players, but the core of the team that won the Western Conference last season has only been added to.
In Tucson for a training camp of sorts over the last two weeks, the Timbers played loose and comfortably. In three preseason games against stiff competition – Kansas City, Houston, and Seattle – the Timbers flourished.
On Monday, the team announced a new naming rights deal for the old ground formally known as Jeld-Wen Field. It’s Providence Park in a 15-year deal that brings back Special Olympics Oregon, and establishes a strong long-term partnership that is much more stable than the one with Jeld-Wen.
Providence Park’s national bow figures to be the 2014 MLS All-Star game, which Portland hosts just weeks after the conclusion of the World Cup.
Yes, things are looking rosy in the Rose City.
And for good reason. While Seattle revamped, Toronto exploded, and the rest of the west mostly stayed the same, Portland is operating with something akin to a zen-like harmony found somewhere between Akron and Argentina.
Merritt Paulson compared Caleb Porter to Jose Mourinho on Twitter. If the Timbers aren’t MLS Cup favorites, they’re in the conversation. I don’t see any team better than them in the West.
So when the season kicks off on March 8th at Providence Park against Philadelphia, the good times should role.
But if there’s anything predictable about sports, it’s that sports will be unpredictable. The last time Portland had high expectations going into a season, they crashed and burned. John Spencer was sacked in the summer, and the team fell apart.
That’s not going to happen this year. But when real adversity hits, how will this club respond?
Former Timbers forward Eddie Johnson is suing the team for 9.9 million dollars for allowing him to train with a concussion. Johnson’s career sadly ended in 2011 due to that concussion, and he was forgotten – until now.
It’s anyone’s guess how that lawsuit will play itself out – the coaching and training staff that is involved is almost entirely gone from the Timbers, as are most of Johnson’s old teammates. But this is a high-profile case, and it could be a distraction depending on what transpired and what transpires.
Remember that incident last year when the Kansas City police were investigating a Timbers player for an alleged sexual assault?
The case never went anywhere – charges were never filed, and the player’s identity was never revealed, and the story was put on the backburner. But those are the kinds of things that derail perfect seasons.
Injuries are always tough to deal with, but injuries to certain players may be fatal.
Portland didn’t win a single game last year that both Diego Chara and Will Johnson didn’t start together. Portland didn’t add any central midfield depth in the offseason, meaning that once again, cover for those two will be Ben Zemanski.
They’re also thin at center-back, whereby cutting ties with Mikael Silvestre, they have presumptive starters Norberto Paparatto and Pa Kah, and the ever-present Futty Danso. That’s pretty much it. Portland plays in three competitions this year, and will need to rotate their squad more than they did last year.
Certainly, these are all what-if scenarios. But something will go wrong this year, as hard as it is to imagine right now. Who knows what it will be? We only know something will happen. This is life, after all.
And club football chews you up like few other things in sports. The question is how do you respond to adversity?
In that 2012 season, Spencer imploded, and his team followed. He couldn’t fix things and he couldn’t handle the pressure. Certainly Gavin Wilkinson the manager didn’t have any answers.
In his career, Caleb Porter has dealt with major adversity – missing out on the 2012 London Olympics with the US-U23s – well. In fact, he wrote a short novel about the experience, and gave it to Jurgen Klinsmann.
At that stage, the Timbers were in fifth place in the West, on the verge of missing the playoffs altogether. A week later, against Colorado at home, Porter instigated Portland’s thundering stretch run.
There was a change of game plan – the message wasn’t "win pretty" anymore, it was "just win, baby." Porter inserted Jack Jewsbury and Futty Danso into the team, veterans who were ready to step in mentally in place of the likes of Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Alvas Powell.
The Timbers won 1-0 and never looked back. If it’s on the field issues, I like Porter’s chances to respond. But he’s relatively untested at this level with off-the-field problems.
The Timbers do have a team that really like each other. The chemistry Portland has, with their different contingents from different parts of the world, has melded together extremely well. It’s not going to be easy to fell this team.
The Timbers have no reason not to be confident this year. But they have every reason to be ready for the inevitable missteps of a long campaign. Their responses to those missteps will determine just how special 2014 will be.