As a documented occurrence amongst many facets of western culture, the sophomore slump appears to have nabbed its next victim: our own Portland Timbers. That's not to say that the players, FO and coaching staff aren't responsible for this season, in fact they're the very cause of the these second year woes. It is more than a little interesting comparing the stats from the first season and this season though because, barring some miraculous turn around, this season is shaping up to be the very epitome of the moniker.
Last year was the Portland Timbers' first ever year in MLS and they were the team everybody was talking about. From April 14th onward, pretty much every major press that covered MLS would at least mention the Timbers and the raucous Timbers Army in some fashion with almost every article. The team was fresh, edgy, and they had a coach who didn't care about calling it like it was. Essentially, they were out to prove something...
And they did! While they narrowly missed the play-offs, most considered the first ever season to be a fairly successful one. With the Timbers earning a respectful 12th place in the league over all. So where did everything go wrong? How has this season been different from last?
Last year, the Portland Timbers had everything to prove and no expectations. This, in a way, empowered them to play far better than they actually were on paper (gotta love soccer!). This season, however, with the expectations to win, especially with a $1.5 million DP, the Timbers have shown time and again that they're simply not up to the task.
Let's compare a few games from last season to now:
Portland Timbers vs. Los Angeles Galaxy
Last year, the league leaders LA, had an interesting back and forth with the Timbers. While the series initially started off with a 3-nil whomping, the Timbers came back in August to handily beat LA 3-nil of their own volition.
This year, during a three game series the Timbers failed to earn even a single point against an LA team that has been struggling all season long with LA taking a +5 GD from the match ups.
Portland Timbers vs. FC Dallas
Another team that is struggling, the Timbers still managed to earn 3 points from them last year from two games, while they struggled to earn 2 this year and still managed to give up 3 points in a 5-nil embarrassment.
Portland Timbers vs. Chivas USA
Again, another instance where the Timbers were at least able to win 3 points at home in 2011, but in 2012 ended up giving away the entire 9 points to a bottom half Western Conference side.
While the Timbers have gone to beat league leaders Sporting KC and the San Jose Earthquakes, as well as Cascadian rivals Seattle Sounders, this clearly shows that the Timbers are struggling with the pressure of being a team that is expected to win. In each of the above three examples, the Timbers were given fair odds at winning and yet, despite the paper saying otherwise, the Timbers failed to convert.
Let's face it though, as popular as the Portland Timbers might be this season, even nationally, it's not quite the same as last year. While the Timbers Army are as vociferous as ever and the stadium is booming when the Timbers play at home, on the national level there's just not that same "Cinderella Story" glean to the whole organization.
In a lot of ways, I liken the Timbers second season in MLS to the dreaded "Second Season Syndrome" that recently promoted EPL teams in England often face. Once the shine of the team wears off, it's back to daily business and that can have a profound impact on both the energy of the fans, players and coaching staff. Settling in to a new routine is always a challenge, especially when that initial excitement wears off.
In some ways it's like the "Honeymoon" effect for a new relationship. Once you've been around somebody long enough, that sort of buzz you get goes away and from then on you have to figure out a way to make it work without needing that same level of energy. Other MLS teams have done it before and the Timbers will figure it out as well... just not this year.
I hope this has given you a bit more incite on the Timbers current season. While I'm not removing responsibility from anybody, I think it's important to put it all within context of the larger picture. The Timbers aren't the first team to have suffered from the Sophomore Slump and they won't be the last. Some teams manage to escape it, but others fall just as hard as the Timbers. Just ask Real Salt Lake...