PORTLAND, Ore. – A year ago, a scene like the one that transpired Saturday night at JELD-WEN Field likely felt like a world away for members of the Portland Timbers.
Players, coaches and team officials, joined by close friends and family, celebrated the franchise’s first berth to the MLS playoffs with the Timbers after after playing Real Salt Lake to a scoreless draw in front of a celebratory crowd, a stark departure from last season’s bitter disappointment that led to a fired head coach and bottom-of-the-table finish.
Portland’s ticket had been punched earlier in the day, actually, but after a tense, physical battle – which offered a playoff-type preview – kept the Timbers atop the Western Conference standings and still breathing in the Supporters’ Shield race, the postgame atmosphere was one of satisfaction.
“Honestly it means a lot to [our fans], to us players,” said club captain and defender Jack Jewsbury, who was one of the MLS franchise’s first major acquisitions who served as the on-field captain the previous two seasons. “And for us to be able to repay them for their support through some of the tough times, it means a lot.”
Forward Darlington Nagbe, who has played all three years of his professional career in Portland, said, considering the previous two disappointing seasons, playing a top-of-the-table clash in October just a week after beating rival Seattle has been a rewarding transformation.
“[Seattle] felt like a playoff game, and today felt like a playoff game also,” Nagbe said. “So that’s definitely going to help us; we know what we need to do to get the wins.”
The symbolic importance was also not lost on head coach Caleb Porter, one of the main architects of the club’s complete reversal in fortunes. Now, with one game remaining next Saturday at Chivas USA, the Timbers will be playing for a regular season conference championship and possibly the Supporters’ Shield.
And though he did say that while qualifying for the playoffs is important, it's clear there is still work left to do.
“I think it’s something that might get lost in the shuffle here and I think that’s OK,” Porter said to reporters after the game. “We’ve evolved this club so quickly and gotten so many good results this year and we’re so confident that to some extent making the playoffs isn’t something we talk about much or even celebrate much. And I think that’s a real positive.”
There also was a hint of disappointment in Saturday’s result against the team nipping at the Timbers heels in the standings. If not for three world-class saves by Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando – on the only three shots on goal by either team on the night – Portland would have been celebrating a win.
“It’s not just about getting in the playoffs, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Porter said. “And we want to be a club that’s not just in the playoffs but making a run to win it.”
The game was also Portland’s fifth straight against teams battling for the postseason – four of which were against teams currently above the red line – which resulted in three wins and two ties. Portland are unbeaten in their last six games overall.
“We’re playing Seattle, we’re playing LA Galaxy, we’re playing Colorado, we’re playing Salt Lake,” Porter said. “And we’ve done well against those teams. So I think that gives us a lot of confidence going into the postseason because we’re in a run of form. … We’re looking like a team that’s primed for the postseason.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.