Portland Timbers disappointed to exit MLS Cup playoffs, but pleased to install winning culture

PORTLAND, Ore. – There was no doubt that it hurt.

But hiding in the pain Sunday night after the Portland Timbers’ 2013 season came to an end was a realization that things around the team have changed. It was clear that Portland ultimately weren’t quite good enough to advance to MLS Cup after Real Salt Lake defeated them in both legs of the Western Conference Championship to advance on a 5-2 aggregate total following a 1-0 loss in Sunday’s second leg, but they’re close.

“It’s a winning culture, no doubt about it,” Portland Timbers captain Will Johnson said in the locker room after circling the field after the loss to the grateful chants of the Timbers Army. “That’s one of the things we talked about afterwards, of being proud of we’re no longer the Portland Timbers that everyone beats up on. We’re starting to become an elite team in this league, and if we do it consistently we’ll find ourselves in championship games year after year.”

Facing a two-goal deficit in the aggregate scoreline going into the game, Portland were the aggressors the entire night. They fired off 18 shots and dominated possession, signs head coach Caleb Porter said point to the fact that the Timbers, playing in the playoffs for the first time, can be proud of what they accomplished this season.

“We didn’t look out of place,” Porter said. “I think that’s remarkable for our team, really in 10 months, to be in the position we’re in.”

Portland’s turnaround from last season, when they finished near the bottom of the Western Conference table and fired head coach John Spencer midseason, has been quite the contrast. Unbeaten streaks of 15 games (a franchise record) and eight, to close out the regular season, had the Timbers in the Supporters’ Shield race up until the final week and gave them the top seed in the West.

Then Portland defeated rival Seattle in the conference semifinals. And, not to mention, made the final four of the US Open Cup.

“You didn’t really know what to expect, but you could see early on that there were the makings of something special,” said defender and club captain Jack Jewsbury, who has been with the Timbers all three of their seasons in the league. “I think the culture now in this organization, in this locker room, in the coaching staff is a group of winners. We set the standards high the next couple years and hopefully we’re the ones raising the trophy next year.”

And as RSL celebrated their trip to the MLS Cup, barely a fan at JELD-WEN Field left the grounds, all loudly chanting “PTFC, PTFC.” It was a show of gratitude from a passionate fan base that finally has a winner to support; a display Porter said made him feel like the “luckiest coach in the league.”

“This team has set a standard in a short amount of time, and it’s only the beginning,” Porter said. “We’re going to be back, there’s no doubt about it. We’re not getting worse, we’re getting better. We’re going to keep doing what we did this year, hopefully better. And hopefully we’re back here next year, only we’re the ones dancing on the field going to the MLS Cup because again our goal is to raise trophies.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.