The final round of what’s been arguably the most wide-open, entertaining regular season in MLS history came fizzing in like a champagne cocktail – for some fans, anyway. For others it was more like hemlock, as their clubs were sentenced to early golf dates.
For the neutral, it was a slam-bang affair, as teams pumped in 31 goals in 10 games, the Red Bulls blitzed Chicago 5-2 to win their first major title in 18 years of existence and Portland won the Western Conference regular-season crown with a 5-0 rout of Chivas USA.
Clint Dempsey scored his first goal for Seattle (then pointed at an imaginary wristwatch as if to say, “’bout time”) to help the Sounders break a four-game winless skid – but the men in green still couldn’t land a win, tying LA 1-1 and staying in fourth place in the West.
The New England Revolution returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, thanks to a beautifully worked goal by Lee Nguyen and Juan Agudelo.
Houston jumped back into the playoff places with a 2-1 win over D.C. United, while Chicago tumbled out of them and Montreal nearly did, backing into the postseason despite a 1-0 loss at lowly Toronto FC.
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Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City both finished strong, winning their finales, and Vancouver attacker Camilo stormed to the Golden Boot with an impressive hat-trick that gave him 22 goals for the season, one more than Chicago striker Mike Magee.
Finally, two storied careers came to a close, as Lee Young-Pyo, Vancouver’s revered outside back, and San Jose’s Ramiro Corrales, the last MLS original, both dropped the curtain on their playing days.
But let’s go back to the top two newsmakers, New York and Portland, and the coaches leading them. There are several worthy candidates for Coach of the Year this season, from Jason Kreis leading a rebuilt Real Salt Lake to Oscar Pareja guiding a raft of young stars in Colorado.
But this week’s results have put Portland’s Caleb Porter and New York’s Mike Petke out in front of the pack.
Let’s see who has the edge:
Petke (right) got the New York job after the club had conducted an extensive search for candidates in Europe, reportedly nearly hiring Gary McAllister and Paulo Sousa. The former New York center back took the reins in late January, slightly more than a month before the season kicked off.
He came in with no head coaching experience, at any level, and took over a roster that he had no say in assembling.
By comparison, Porter had vast amounts of experience when he took the Portland job – but only by comparison.
He, too, had never coached in the professional ranks before this season, taking over the Timbers after six very successful seasons coaching the University of Akron, and one unsuccessful stint in charge of the US Under-23 national team, which failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.
Both men faced daunting pressure in their new positions. New York, despite landing players as accomplished as Roberto Donadoni, Lothar Matthäus and Claudio Reyna, and coaches as pedigreed as Alberto Parreira, Bruce Arena, Carlos Quieroz and Bob Bradley, had not won a single trophy in 18 years.
In January, after jettisoning their latest European coach, Hans Backe, and another high-priced import, Rafa Márquez, they still had superstar Thierry Henry and former Everton stalwart Tim Cahill – and they still had expectations of bringing a championship to the media capital of the world.
Into this maw walked the untested Petke, who would have to earn the respect – and manage the personality – of his larger-than-life star in Henry, who is only one year younger than he is.
The situation Porter entered was different, but only slightly less pressurized. While the Timbers only started MLS play in 2011, the club and the soccer-loving city have a tradition stretching back to 1975, and they’ve sold out every home MLS game since 2011, a string of 51 consecutive games.
Their supporters create one of the best atmospheres in MLS (or any league), yet after a respectable 11-14-9 expansion season, the club slipped to 8-16-10 and eighth place last season. That wouldn’t do – not for the rabid fanbase and not considering the fact that their Cascadia rivals just north on I-5 had made the playoffs in every season of their brief MLS existence and had won three straight US Open Cups.
Petke inherited a team that went 16-9-9 and finished third in the Eastern Conference with a goal difference of plus-11 last season. He improved them to 17-9-8 and first overall (Supporters’ Shield champs) with a goal difference of plus-17 this year.
He also greatly increased the team’s depth, showing confidence in a much wider range of players than his predecessor Backe did, and most importantly, he changed the mentality and the culture of the team. He united the New York locker room in a way that it had never been united before, a fact evident in the team’s body language down the stretch – especially in the Chicago win that locked down the Shield. Look no further than a August training-field dustup with Henry, which Petke credits with getting the team on the same page.
The on-field turnaround that Porter (right) engineered was nothing short of remarkable: As we said, the Timbers finished eighth in the West last season with a record of 8-16-10 – and a dreadful goal difference of minus-22. This year? Exit Mr. Hyde, enter Dr. Jekyll: Portland went 14-5-15 and won the West with a plus-21 goal difference – an MLS-record 43-goal reversal from the previous season.
Porter also orchestrated a culture change in Portland, taking a team that had been sputtering for two seasons, giving them an identity and making them the hardest team to beat in the entire league. The Timbers lost just five times this season; only one other team – New York – was even in single digits in that column in 2013.
It’s a photo finish – but the Postgame is going with Porter. Both men produced incredible results in short order, turning over much of their rosters and instituting winning ways in just one season.
But Porter’s on-field results give him the edge: he lifted his team so far so quickly it’s a wonder they don’t have the bends.
These two teams kicked off their seasons back on March 3, playing an entertaining 3-3 draw against one another at JELD-WEN Field.
Who knows – they may bookend the season by meeting again at Red Bull Arena on Dec 7, with much more than Coach of the Year award at stake.