If the Portland Timbers don’t make the playoffs in 2014, there will be no question as to the primary reason – eight winless games to start the season. Entering May with five points is no way to begin a defense of the Western Conference title. As such, if the Timbers meet their demise in the next two weeks, it will be largely of their own doing.
Nobody harbors any delusions about this last point. After last week’s dominant win over San Jose, Caleb Porter went out of his way to acknowledge this point, saying, "We’ve been through a lot. Like I said, we brought some of that on ourselves; it’s not like we’ve been victims."
And even after the Timbers’ false start to the season, there have been some head-scratching results. Most recently a 3-2 defeat at Toronto (Portland’s only loss since August) and draws against San Jose and Colorado in games the Timbers otherwise controlled have made the Green-and-Gold’s stretch run imperfect.
But a forest-level review of the Timbers’ post-spring results reveals an undeniable truth: The Timbers have been one of the better teams in MLS since May. Indeed, the Timbers’ 1.67 points per game since May Day are fourth in the league and trails only Seattle and L.A. Galaxy in the West. As such, those recent head-scratchers are probably most appropriately characterized as the typical ups-and-downs of even a good MLS season.
The problems that plagued the Timbers’ early form have either been fixed (the attack) or somewhat compensated for (the defense). While they certainly have a few needs to address in the offseason, for the majority of the season the Timbers of 2014 haven’t been far off their 2013 form. Simply put, the bulk of the Timbers’ work in 2014 suggests this team, even with its warts, is of roughly similar quality to last year and has not regressed nearly as much as many feared in the wake of the terrible start.
That does not mean, however, that the Timbers will make the playoffs.
Any successful stretch run requires a little bit of luck. And, after the Timbers’ terrible spring, there was no question they would need a successful stretch run to make the postseason.
Take 2013 for example. Without the Sounders swoon, a late RSL home draw against a bad FC Dallas team, and L.A. Galaxy winning only two of their final eight games, the 2013 Timbers would have never won the West and qualified for Champions League. Indeed, that Timbers team could have easily been as low as fourth in the West and forced into the play-in game. But along with the Timbers’ eight-game unbeaten streak to finish the season, that Portland team benefitted from some good fortune in the form of the other Western contenders dropping key points in the fall.
Even this year the Sounders and Galaxy, two of the most dominant teams we’ve seen in the last several years in MLS, have needed luck down the stretch. On Saturday the Sounders threw L.A. a bone by losing at home to Vancouver. On Sunday the Galaxy threw it back by falling to FC Dallas after holding an early lead.
As Porter noted, nobody else is to blame for the Timbers competing for the 4-5-6 spots in the West rather than the 1-2-3 spots the team battled for in 2013. But whereas Portland found some good fortune to rise to the top in 2013, they’ve had absolutely none as they potentially slide toward the bottom of their possible finishing positions in 2014.
Really, none at all.
Of the five non-Timbers games that had a material impact on Portland’s playoff chances in the previous three weeks, zero have gone their way. An FC Dallas team that was wobbling on its tracks through most of September with losses to Chicago, Real Salt Lake, and L.A. Galaxy, found the wherewithal to beat the Sounders and the Galaxy in late-September and October. The Burn’s one loss in the past three weeks? To the Vancouver Whitecaps who, with victories over RSL, Dallas, and at Seattle, have won as many games in the preceding three weeks as they otherwise had since June 1st.
There’s an argument to be made smart money in each of those games would have been on the other side of the result that ultimately occurred. Nobody – not Caleb Porter, nor Oscar Pareja, nor Carl Robinson – would have predicted the past three weeks’ results.
And so, as the Timbers face a final two games in which even with perfection they’ll need an upset elsewhere to qualify for the playoffs, it’s reasonable for Porter and company to lament the fates as well as their early-season struggles for their present precarious standing.
Without a doubt, this Timbers team should be in a better position than to be relying on slip-ups from Vancouver to simply qualify for the postseason. Portland’s post-May results are proof enough in this respect. But it cannot be denied that the team has done enough to lift itself from the race for the wooden spoon into a very legitimate – and deserved – playoff contender.
It may just turn out, however, that the early struggles combined with considerable late-season misfortune may be too much for the Timbers to overcome.