How they got here: Portland Timbers

IMAGE, PORTLAND TIMBERS

by RYAN BRISTER

The margins are so very slim in Major League Soccer. Way back in October, when the playoffs were just beginning, Saad Abdul-Salaam stepped up to the penalty spot in Portland with a chance to end the Timbers’ season. The Sporting Kansas City defender sent his penalty left; Adam Kwararsey dived the opposite way. The ball hit the post, trickled along the goal line, hit the other post, and bounced away.

A month later, the Timbers are going to MLS Cup. Portland survived that lengthy shootout against KC, defeated Vancouver, and held on against Dallas to win the Western Conference, and the Timbers Army is riding high. How different would the mood be in the Rose City had the Timbers been bounced out in the knockout round?

For that matter, how different was the mood just two months ago? The Timbers entered the final month of the regular season tied for the last playoff spot in the West, with tough trips to Salt Lake and LA remaining. There was the sense that missing the playoffs for a second-straight year could cost Caleb Porter his job. They won those road games, and haven’t lost since.

None of this is to take away from the Timbers’ run to MLS Cup. Portland has persevered through injuries, suspensions, and the best teams in the Western Conference to reach this point, and they deserve their place in the final. But it’s fair to say that Porter has his team playing better now than they did for most of the season. A year of ups and downs is on the up at the right time.

Inconsistency has been a theme of Porter’s reign. After a stellar season of pretty soccer brought Portland to the top of the West in 2013, they finished sixth and missed the playoffs a year ago. 2014’s team was weighted down by a shaky back line, so Porter brought in Liam Ridgewell during the summer and Nat Borchers in the winter. The back line was much improved this season, only to see the opposite problem of a failure to score goals.

For most of the 2015 season, Timbers games followed a pattern: Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe did well to create chances, but the ball wouldn’t find the back of the net. Portland saw results slip when, having controlled most of the game, a counter beat them going the other way. Something clicked in October, specifically a second-half slaughtering of the Galaxy in which they scored five goals. The Timbers had scored multiple goals in just two games between July and that point; they have done it in five of six games since.

Porter seems to have figured the puzzle out with a 4-1-4-1 formation. Diego Chara sits in front of the back line, where he did a lot of destructive work against Dallas. This in turn frees up Nagbe and Valeri to wreak more havok going forward. Long lauded for his potential, Nagbe is getting the goals and assists he has been criticized for lacking. Fanendo Adi has been a regularly beneficiary of the Timbers’ scoring surge, with 18 goals across the regular season and playoffs.

The support in Portland has not wavered. Since joining MLS in 2011, every game at Providence Park has been a sellout, and the Timbers Army has produced an atmosphere unlike any other in the league. Timbers supporters can now stick their tongues out at Seattle, who in seven seasons have gotten to the doorstep of MLS Cup but always fallen short.

With all due respect to their Cascadia rivals, no MLS team is as ingrained in their city as the Timbers are in Portland. Without an NFL or MLB team to compete with, the Timbers regularly find themselves on the front page of the local paper—and not just the sports section. Portland is far from MLS’s largest market, but it has regularly punched above its weight in terms of television viewership. The Rose City has embraced its team in various forms since the 70s, and win on Sunday would be Portland’s first championship since the Trailblazers won the NBA title in 1977.

An MLS Cup triumph would further cement, if such a thing is possible, the Timbers’ place in Portland. It would elevate the Timbers to a local status soccer teams simply haven’t enjoyed in this country. They’d have two metal poles to thank for it.