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From the Stump: The Arbitrariness of Success

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Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Thirty-six hours later, the Portland Timbers’ 5-2 win in Los Angeles on Sunday still feels like a season-defining moment.

After several deflating losses in the last three months, weeks upon weeks of angst, and questions over who - if anybody - among the Timbers brass would survive a disappointing season, the Timbers’ second-half explosion in Carson on Sunday turned the conversation from whether the Timbers could sneak into the playoffs to whether Portland could capture one of the coveted top two seeds and a first-round bye. What a difference one half makes.

And so on Monday I asked a seemingly simple question on Twitter:

Although the responses yielded a number of different opinions, the consensus answer was somewhere on the scale of yes-ish. While there were various points of equivocation and qualification, the general sentiment in #RCTID was that such a regular season could be considered a modest - if not necessarily wild - success.

And I agree. Although whether the Timbers’ could turn such a regular season into a trophy or CONCACAF Champions League berth would be yet to be determined, considering the West was historically competitive this year a finish somewhere between second and fourth on 53 points is, all things considered, a good result that would put the Timbers in a viable position from which to make a legitimate run in the playoffs.

But, really, isn’t that almost laughably arbitrary?

After all, if the Timbers had lost, or even drawn (which, in its own right, would have been a quite good result), at Stub Hub Center, the conversation would remain about whether the Timbers could sneak over the wobbling bar that is the red line in the Western Conference this year. And few - myself certainly included - would call that success. Notably, even with the win against the Galaxy the Timbers are still not assured a place in the MLS postseason.

Can it really be, therefore, that the difference between a generally successful season and a disappointing campaign is 25 minutes of outstanding soccer?

The answer, of course, is yes.

This arbitrariness - even randomness - that can determine the success or failure of a season, of course, springs from that same randomness within games. Although some teams are certainly better than others and that influences the probabilities of the game’s outcome, the result of a particular game is frequently decided by serendipity as much as it is quality. Simply put, a deflection here or a call there frequently has as much of an impact on the outcome of the game as the quality of the two sides playing. That’s part of the cruelty and beauty of the sport.

And just as the line between earning or losing a result can be unjustly thin, with as much parity as there is in MLS this season, the line between season-long success and failure is often so fine that it, too, can only be fairly described as arbitrary.

Although the Western Conference has been unusually balanced from top to bottom in 2015, it hasn’t been to an extraordinary extent. In 2013, when the Timbers won the Western Conference regular-season title, only six points separated first through sixth - at that time the first team out of the playoffs.

And in recent history the Eastern Conference has arguably been more of a mess. In 2011, only five points separated first through fifth in the Eastern Conference. In 2012, only one point separated second and fourth place. In 2013 only two points separated sixth (no playoffs) and third (first-round bye). And again this season only four points separate second and sixth place.

Thus, 25 minutes of outstanding soccer is often what sets the line between success and failure in an MLS season.

This is especially true when you consider all of the seemingly random variables that go into a season; an untimely international call-up, a key injury, an unlucky referee decision, or a random hot streak can very easily be the difference between a coach being fired and a team earning a first-round playoff bye. Even a team’s schedule in a world of unbalanced intra-conference slates can affect a season.

Focusing on the outcome of one season for good or for bad, therefore, may often not be a very useful way to measure whether the Timbers are headed in the right or wrong direction. Instead, perhaps we need to be taking a longer view toward whether the Timbers are meeting expectations.

Because calling 2015 a success because of 25 minutes of outstanding soccer in Los Angeles -- or, for that matter, calling 2014 a failure based on a horrible eight-game winless streak in March and April -- seems pointless. Why should 25 excellent minutes or eight frustrating game upstage the rest of the Timbers’ body of work?

This got me thinking about comments that Caleb Porter made to The Oregonian’s Jamie Goldberg last month. At the time everybody very reasonably interpreted Porter’s comments as meaning that mere playoff qualification was enough to meet his and the Timbers' expectations. Where the Timbers land in the Supporters Shield standings and playoff seedings was a secondary consideration. As long as the Timbers qualified for the playoffs, we thought Porter said, then the regular season could be considered "mission accomplished" because the Timbers had given themselves a chance - however remote - at a trophy.

This contention from Porter that mere playoff qualification was the expectation came off at the time as a disconcerting concession to mediocrity.

But take another look at Porter's full comments (which start at 4:42 of the video linked above). And consider them in light of the conclusion reached above - that the difference between success and failure, or between the second seed and the sixth seed, is often significantly influenced by the flukey or random when viewed through the lens of a particular season.

Jamie Goldberg:  At the beginning of the season, what were the expectations that you and the organization had for this team in terms of point total and finishing in the standings, and do you feel like you're still on track to meet those expectations?

Caleb Porter:  The expectation is playoffs. Every year. That's the expectation. And then obviously you get into the playoffs it gives you a chance to win a trophy.

Goldberg:  Obviously anything can happen if you get into the playoffs, but is finishing sixth - would be satisfactory for you or feel like a successful season?

Porter:  I think getting in the playoffs, alright, gives you a chance to win a trophy.  So if you're a club every year in Major League Soccer with the way it's set up that gets in the playoffs, then obviously you're a team that's healthy. You're a team that's always in position.

Obviously you want to get in - in the highest position possible, but you look at teams over the years - LA [Galaxy] - I don't think they're too bothered about that. They know if they get in that they'll have a chance to win it. And I think ultimately that's going to be the measuring stick always is getting in the playoffs.

So I think year-in-and-year-out, if you can do that, then you're a healthy club. There's a lot of parity, there's a lot of competition. The league is set up for that parity. The better teams don't get more help the following year. The teams that aren't good get help. And so it's always going to be a dogfight in this league, every single game and every single year, especially in the West.

So if we're a club that can get in the playoffs every year and give us a chance to win it all and - you look at L.A., they've gotten in sometimes in that fifth spot, four spot, sometimes third spot, and they've won.  Houston made the championship I think it's three years in a row and they got in barely every year.

So I think it's about getting in and then it's about making a run at the end. So right now we need to be focused on getting in. We're one point off. We're hanging on by a thread. To get in it's simple: We need to win more games than San Jose and RSL. If we do that, then we're in.

And if we're in, that's two out of three years that we've been in the playoffs coming off of two years when we weren't in the playoffs. So is it successful? Not successful? I think every year if we can get in the playoffs, then we're a healthy club.

It’s easy to see why Porter’s comments were so frustrating in response to Goldberg's question. Goldberg asked about this season - i.e., whether the Timbers’ performance in 2015 meets the organizations expectations. That, of course, is a perfectly reasonable question.

But Porter didn’t answer it.

Instead, the clumsily unstated premise of Porter's answer was largely that he was taking the longer view that we discussed above. Five times during his answer Porter referred to being a team that makes the playoffs every year. And although Porter sort of filibustered himself with overstated and only tangentially relevant points about the playoff success of LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo coming out of lower playoff seeds, he kept coming back to that same theme: If you’re making the playoffs consistently, you’re a healthy club.

Implicit in Porter’s perspective, therefore, is the notion that it’s not always useful to set hard-and-fast, single-season expectations. If the club were to say that third place is acceptable but fifth place is not, it would run a real risk of distinguishing between an acceptable and unacceptable season based on factors that ultimately have very little to do with the quality of the team or the club.

Instead, Porter’s standard is to be a club that is in and around playoff position every year. To be sure, in some of those years the elements of randomness will fall against the Timbers - a cold streak will cripple the season or injuries will leave Portland fatally shorthanded. And in those years Porter’s otherwise healthy club may earn a lower playoff seed or, as the Timbers did in 2014, narrowly miss out on the postseason altogether.

But in some of those years the elements of arbitrariness will fall in the Timbers’ favor. And in those years the Supporters Shield, MLS Cup, a regular-season conference title, and/or CCL qualification are real possibilities as they were in 2013.

The Timbers can’t expect to reach those heights, Porter seems to be saying, unless they’re in contention consistently. And while this perspective does not necessarily bear any dynastic ambitions, such ambitions aren’t terribly realistic for any club with the way the MLS regular season is currently set up. In the last five years, eight different teams (including five in the West) have won a regular-season conference title.

So, although Bruce Arena is a master at getting his Galaxy teams playing their best in the playoffs, when it comes to regular-season prowess there really aren’t any MLS dynasties. Rather, there are clubs that are consistently in contention and clubs that aren’t. Or, in Porter’s words, there are clubs that are healthy and clubs that aren’t.

Which brings us back to Sunday. The Timbers as a club aren’t significantly healthier today than they were on Saturday. Nor will they be next Monday than they are today, regardless of how things turn out on Sunday.

Rather, whether the Timbers are headed in the right direction or the wrong direction needs to be viewed through a much broader lens.

Because in this league and in this sport any other definition of success or failure is meaninglessly arbitrary.

And that’s the beauty of it.