Portland Timbers all smiles as they emerge victorious from "season-defining" stretch of games

PORTLAND, Ore. – Before the Portland Timbers left the Rose City for a June 8 game in Chicago, team captain Will Johnson had some very poignant words about the upcoming two weeks.

He emphasized that four-game stretch would “define our season.”

Now, after the Timbers’ 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids at JELD-WEN Field on Sunday gave them two wins and two draws from those games, Portland could not be much happier with the way things shook out. The team finds itself in first place in the Western Conference for the first time in their MLS history this far into a season, sitting on 30 points from 17 games.

“I said before the stretch, we’re either going to be competing for first place or right at the red line looking up,” said Johnson, who scored his team-leading sixth goal of the season as one of three players to tally in the rout. “And it’s credit to the group that we’re fighting for first place, but we’re nowhere near satisfied.”

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To call it a renaissance, after a disappointing first two seasons in the league, would be an understatement.

The Timbers lead the league with 28 goals and on Sunday extended their MLS franchise-best unbeaten streak to 15 games. They haven’t lost since March 9 against Montreal, their only defeat of the year with the season now at the halfway point.

“This team believes that they’re the best team in the league,” head coach Caleb Porter said. “I look in their eyes today, they’re happy, but it looks like they expected it. So for me that shows that we have a realistic belief in this club that we can be a contender and to compete for trophies here.”

And to reach first place having just completed the schedule’s most brutal stretch, with seven games across all competitions in 29 days, with four key players gone for two weeks on international duty, could anyone have expected it?

“Yeah, I think we did, to be honest,” defender Jack Jewsbury said. “We have a very good, deep team, and we knew there were going to guys rotating throughout league games and Open Cup games. But at the end of the day we have faith in everyone in this locker room, and we’ve used a lot of guys to get through this tough patch. It feels good to be where we’re at.”

Sunday’s game was a perfect example of how the Timbers survived the stretch.

Reserve striker Frédéric Piquionne opened the scoring with a 12th-minute header. Johnson added on right before halftime. And then starting forward Ryan Johnson, who missed a game while with the Jamaican national team, subbed in for Piquionne and added the nail in the coffin with an 84th minute goal.

They were all assisted by the recently returned Rodney Wallace, who missed three games while on international duty with Costa Rica.

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“How the goals happened, all different kinds of goals, we kept possession for long periods of time, I think today is what Portland Timbers are all about when it comes to a collective game,” Ryan Johnson said. “It was definitely put together for 90-plus minutes.”

The Timbers aren’t quite out of the woods yet, with a quarterfinals match of the US Open Cup on Wednesday at FC Dallas before they get an extended break, until July 7. That will be their eighth game in a month. But regardless of the result, the first half of the 2013 season has been a resounding success.

“That was a very professional performance today,” Porter said. “Obviously we’re pleased to be, 17 games in, where we are, with 30 points at the top of the table. But we’re only halfway through. It feels great, but as I told the guys we have a long way to go. And what’s scary about this team is we’re just scratching the surface.”