How do you define a successful season in Major League Soccer?
For the Portland Timbers, success has come in different forms in different years. The Timbers have had their share of regular season successes, post-season glory, and rivalry match triumphs, but so far the side has never repeated the successes of the MLS era.
2013 saw the Timbers make their way into the playoffs for the first time ever, finishing at the top of the Western Conference and falling just short of taking home the Supporters’ Shield.
2015 saw the Timbers squeak into the playoffs after a tumultuous regular season, only to go on a run that took them straight to the MLS Cup Final where they were victorious, winning the league championship.
And, of course, 2012 saw the Timbers win the Cascadia Cup for the first and only time in the MLS era, beating out the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps thanks to a thunderous strike from Jack Jewsbury up at BC Place.
2016, meanwhile, saw the Timbers fall short of each of these varied measures. The season started slow and stayed that way for most of the year, leaving the Timbers with one final shot at winning a spot in the playoffs and bringing home the Cascadia Cup. However, as we all remember, the Timbers fell well short of any measure of glory as they took a 4-1 shellacking from the Whitecaps in their final match.
Caleb Porter, for his part, has made no bones about his priorities: it is all about bringing home the MLS Cup.
“While we didn’t make the playoffs this year,” said Porter in a post season interview in early November, “we have proven that we can make the playoffs and we have proven that we can win in the playoffs. Ultimately that is what it is about; it is not just about getting in and losing in the knockout, which a lot of teams have done, but it is about getting in, but getting in to win it.”
Just making it into the playoffs is not enough, according to Porter, echoing thoughts shared by some of the Timbers’ fanbase as the team made their last-second playoff push this year. In 2016 the Timbers would have been all but guaranteed to have a road match if they had grabbed a last-second playoff berth, and after finishing the year with a winless (or potentially one-win in this hypothetical situation) road record, advancing did not look likely.
“For me,” Porter continued as he reflected on the season, “that one game doesn’t change anything, because if we won that game and we get in, we still have to reflect on things and we still have to make changes. We would feel a little better, but I am not sure that we were ready, even if we got in, with the issues that we had, to win the cup. And that is what it is about.
“I am never going to be satisfied like some of these other clubs with just getting in and being okay with that, saying that is a good season, and losing in the knockout game.”
This Cup-first attitude is not something that is new or unexpected from Porter. Since his arrival in Portland, Porter has always refereed to the holders of the Cup as the “champions” and the “best team in the league” — language that caused some consternation among the national press when he refereed to the Timbers in that way early in 2016 despite their struggles.
Is Porter correct, though?
Playoffs are as American as apple pie, of course, and they add an undeniable excitement to the end of the season that all but a handful of teams get swept up in, but should the Timbers be aiming for that late-season peak that could once again propel them to the Cup Final? Or should excellence over the course of the season be their priority, even if it means an FC Dallas-esque stumble looks a little more likely?
We know where the Timbers stand, but feel free to share your priorities when it comes to sporting glory in the comments below.