What deficit? Portland Timbers have had to "practice" coming back all season long

PORTLAND, Ore. – On a chilly night in early March, the Portland Timbers embarked on a new era under new head coach Caleb Porter. And it couldn’t have gotten off to a rockier start.

The New York Red Bulls, the eventual Supporters’ Shield champion, darted out to a 3-1 halftime lead. And the JELD-WEN Field faithful were left shell shocked.

Then it all turned around.

Portland dominated New York in the second half, poured in two goals and probably could have had more before it ended in a 3-3 draw.

Heading in Sunday’s Western Conference Championship second leg against Real Salt Lake, the Timbers find themselves down two goals again after falling 4-2 in the first leg in Utah.

"We've been in situations like this all year long, from the first game of the year," Timbers captain Will Johnson said. "Throughout the season there’ve been opportunities for us to practice this and we’ve done it a lot of times, so I think that’s where the belief comes from."

That belief is well-earned. As Johnson alluded to, the season-opener against New York wasn’t the only time Portland would respond to deficits. On the road later in March against the Colorado Rapids, the Timbers scored two goals in the final 35 minutes to erase a 2-0 deficit and escape with a 2-2 draw.

Against rivals Seattle Sounders, also in March, a 90th-minute goal gave Portland a 1-1 draw. They overcame two one-goal deficits to beat Sporting Kansas City 3-2 on the road on April 27. And they overcame a 1-0 deficit on July 13 against the LA Galaxy to win 2-1, a game that included a dramatic stoppage-time game winner.

“Under some adverse conditions and in adverse situations, I’ve never seen our guys not be up for it,” Porter said this week. “Our backs are against the wall a little bit.”

For whatever reason, Porter said, he’s seen his group play their best soccer when they’ve most needed it. He said when they’re facing a deficit he sees his players get just a little more aggressive, a little more focused and a little more clinical. And in the two weeks leading up to this weekend, he’s seen “tremendous” energy, and a group that “truly believes."

“Honestly, I think there have been periods this year, our worst periods, where we haven’t felt that urgency,” Porter continued. “So again, I’m strangely excited and eager to see just how aggressive and just how sharp this team is, knowing that we have to score goals and we have to win this game or our season is done.

"I think that little extra motivation and push is going to make for a very exciting game, and I think it will make for a game that we’re playing our best.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.