This weird, wacky, maybe morally questionable 2020 MLS regular season has finally reached its conclusion. The Portland Timbers closed it out with a scrappy come from behind draw away at LAFC, and they will be kicking off their fourth straight playoff appearance against FC Dallas at home on November 22nd.
I know what you might be thinking: “The Timbers didn’t inspire confidence on Sunday, and they lost their regular season home finale, oh god this is going to go down just like 2019 with a one and done exit.”
Well the numbers suggest that everyone should take a breath and put away the panic buttons, because Portland’s end of season form going into the 2020 playoffs is better than 2019’s form, and may even actually be a bit better than 2018’s.
Let’s start with looking at the games themselves. Here are the results of Portland’s final five regular season games for the past three seasons:
2018: Loss, Draw, Win, Win, Loss (7 points)
2019: Loss, Draw, Draw, Draw, Win (6 points)
2020: Draw, Win, Win, Loss, Draw (8 points)
Based on results alone, Portland’s form going into the playoffs is the best it has been out of its three previous seasons. The differences appear to be marginal, but having a stronger form can make a difference in the mentality and attitude of a team entering must-win games.
We saw the reverse of this play out in 2019, specifically. Last regular season closed with a worrying skid where Portland won just three of their last ten matches, nine of which were at home. None of the three wins were particularly convincing, and just one was against a playoff side. Nobody felt confident going to the postseason, and in case we all needed a reminder how it ended…
Sure enough, Portland got bounced in the first round rather unceremoniously.
Comparatively, Portland is ending this regular season as perhaps one of the strongest sides in the league. They’ve gone 5-2-3 in their final ten matches, riding their results to the point where they were flirting with the top spot in the Western Conference standings. While things didn’t go down quite the way they wanted them to, Portland still ended this regular season on a relative high.
If you don’t believe that on face value, the underlying points per game numbers reinforce the point. Portland finished 2020 averaging 1.7 points per game, which is the best ppg they’ve ever averaged at in an MLS season. Yes, 2020 was a shortened season with regional based games, but when going off of just results and points amassed per number of games played, this is the best form Portland has had going into an MLS postseason.
The numbers suggest that this is a team that is performing well with confidence going into the playoffs, and the product on the field is suggesting it too.
This is hard to quantify as it’s not something you can point to like results or points per game, but I deposit that this Portland team just looks more confident and sure of themselves going into the playoffs than they did at this point last season.
Take the equalizer from Sunday. The Timbers were getting outplayed in pretty much every facet of the game, getting outshot and pummeled at the other end, and then they bust out this textbook, all-out, beautiful counterattack in the 90th gosh dang minute:
That’s a team that despite being pummeled and pressed to death all game never gave up on their belief of getting a result. We might all roll our eyes at the concepts of “belief” or “mentality,” but those are the little things that separate good teams from great teams.
Portland has already shown that in their run to the MLS is Back championship in August. After winning the trophy in Orlando the team cited their maturity and unity, and the culture they had fostered in the bubble as the key factors that helped spur them to victory. This bizarre 2020 season has shown that it’s the little things that make the difference, and the Timbers have shown that they can create and maintain those little advantages.
What helps turn those advantages into results are having key players step up, and Portland has had that as well. Diego Valeri is in maybe his best form since his 2017 MVP season, and Diego Chara has proved that he might be ageless, putting in a best XI-caliber season. Yimmi Chara is becoming a difference maker in the attack, and co-leading scorer Jeremy Ebobisse looks set to return in time for the playoffs. In-form players putting in strong performances results in an in-form club, and that’s exactly what Portland appears to be at the moment.
Have the Timbers been on a tear? Not by any means. They still finished third in a conference where just a week ago they had one hand on finishing in first place. But the results and on-field look of this team just makes me believe they are confident and have momentum going into the playoffs. Down the stretch the Timbers have looked like a club believing they can step onto the field facing off against anyone and win. In two weeks time, we get to see how far that belief will take them.