2013 in Review: Retooled Portland Timbers take a giant step forward under Caleb Porter

Over the next two weeks, MLSsoccer.com will take a look back at the 2013 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with D.C. United and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.

2013 record: 14-5-15 (57 points); 54 GF / 33 GA (+21 GD)

2013 Portland Timbers statistics


They said it...

General manager Gavin Wilkinson said on whether the organization expected this level of success:

“I think if we say we expected it, it may be a little bit of an overstatement in some ways. I think we were trying to get the foundation right, we were trying to get some pieces in place. And I think things changed when you saw Caleb operate the team and the way the team played. I think then the expectations started to rise.”

On his assessment of Porter’s first year as head coach:

“He holds himself to a very high standard, he works extremely hard, and those are some of the things we were looking for in a new head coach. ... I think when we first signed him actually, we had come to the conclusion that he was definitely the right person.

"Then it was a matter of creating the environment where he could fulfill what he wanted to do and maybe lower the expectations initially so he didn’t feel like he was under too much pressure.

“At the end of preseason, I had players coming up to me saying, ‘Gavin, this is incredible. You’ve got the right guy in charge, and we’re actually loving what we’re doing.’”

On whether this season was vindication after he received high criticism for last season’s failures:

“I probably wouldn’t be any different as a fan. When you have a level of passion for it, you have expectations, and when you’re only seeing the end result, you’re not aware of all the other steps and the level of work or the level of passion that somebody has for it. But you looked at the results, and in professional sports results mean everything.

"But I definitely wasn’t a happy individual last season, and it took its toll on the family and it was exhausting to be honest. So when you get things right, you don’t have to repeat them. So for me, going through that agony was very, very difficult, but if you would say, ‘Gavin, after one year’s time, you were going to get all this abuse and go through all that turmoil, that you’d win the Western Conference,’ I would do it for the organization again. It was just not something that enjoyable.”

It was a year of superlatives for the Portland Timbers in 2013, and one that supporters aren’t soon likely to forget.

The Timbers not only burst into postseason relevancy for the first time in MLS, making their playoff debut in their third season in the league, but they did it in impressive fashion, competing for the Supporters’ Shield until the final week, finishing first in the Western Conference and just missing out on an MLS Cup berth.

First-year head coach Caleb Porter, making his debut in professional coaching after lofty success at the college ranks, proved to be a revelation and was rewarded with Coach of the Year honors.

The Timbers' success – highlighted by a midseason franchise-record 15-game unbeaten streak and appearance in the Western Conference Championship – arrived somewhat unexpectedly due to the fact that the Timbers underwent a near-complete roster overhaul in the offseason.

But nearly every move was a knockout, with three newcomers selected to the league’s Best XI, most notably Newcomer of the Year Diego Valeri.

Best Moment of the Year

The Timbers' best moment of the year is very likely the best moment in franchise history: beating bitter rivals the Seattle Sounders in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinals in front of their loyal supporters at JELD-WEN Field on Nov. 7.

Aside from the satisfaction of vanquishing their rivals, whose success had overshadowed Portland since they joined the league in 2011, it also solidified Portland’s regular-season success and claim as one of the top teams in the league.

The Timbers came into the game with a 2-1 lead in the aggregate and flew out to a 3-0 lead before securing the 5-3 aggregate win, sending an already raucous home crowd into a frenzy that ended with a celebration in the Timbers Army section that lasted well after the final whistle.

Worst Moment of the Year

For a team that lost just five times during the regular season, tops in the league, there weren’t many. But the first leg of the Western Conference Championship against Real Salt Lake certainly heads that shortlist. After a Will Johnson free-kick goal staked Portland to an early 1-0 lead in the Nov. 10 game at Rio Tinto Stadium, the wheels came off.

Salt Lake sliced apart the Timbers defense at will, scoring four unanswered goals. A stoppage-time goal by Frederic Piquionne was the only thing that prevented complete disaster for Portland, resulting in a 4-2 loss and daunting deficit heading into the home leg.

It all but sealed the Timbers’ fate in the series, which ended with RSL earning a trip to the MLS Cup after a 1-0 victory in Portland

Best Goal

It didn’t take long for Valeri to endear himself to Portland fans. In the first game of the year, a wild 3-3 draw with the New York Red Bulls on March 3, Valeri opened the scoring with a clever, juggling strike that would be the harbinger of things to come from the creative midfielder.

He took a pass from Kalif Alhassan, used one juggle off his chest to bisect two defenders and fired a right-footed shot inside the far-right post. The goal was good enough for second place in the MLS Goal of the Year voting.

Team MVP

Valeri takes home this honor, as well, to no surprise. A league MVP candidate to many, the 27-year-old Argentinean was one of only two players in the league to record double-digit goal and assist totals, the other being LA Galaxy’s Robbie Keane. His 13 assists led the league and his 10 goals were tops on the team. More importantly, his playmaking ability was the catalyst behind Portland’s balanced scoring attack, with three players scoring nine goals and one with seven.

What’s more, his value was exemplified when he was hampered by a late-season injury and the Timbers proved far less potent without him. That was highlighted in their 4-0 win over Toronto on Sept. 7 when, with Portland holding onto a 1-0 lead late in the game, Valeri subbed on and immediately assisted on one goal and scored another to blow the game open. 

Best Move

Was it the thorough scouting that led to Valeri coming to the Rose City? Or the chance Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson took on trading for future captain Will Johnson’s leadership qualities? Too easy. The best move proved to be the toughest, which actually occurred in 2012 but was a huge reason for success in 2013: shipping fan-favorite goalkeeper Troy Perkins to Montreal for veteran Donovan Ricketts, Porter’s first move as head coach. In the face of claims that Ricketts’ best days were behind him, the big Jamaican international turned in perhaps his best season of a laudable career that led to his second MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award.

Quotable

“I’m not bothered by aesthetics or style. Everybody wants to make it into that. I’m about winning games. Simple. I could care less how it looks.” – Porter early in the season, addressing his style of play, dubbed “Porterball” by the media.

Offseason Needs

1. Outside penetration: One of the first needs cited by the Timbers front office was a player who could get behind the defense on the wings, especially the left wing, to free the middle for Portland’s exceptional playmakers. That was addressed when Portland picked former Sounders attacker Steve Zakuani with the No. 2 pick of the Re-Entry Draft. A shot across the bow to rival Seattle and yet another dangerous piece for Porter to tinker with.

2. Center back: Portland’s defense was their most inconsistent aspect of a season with very few negatives. Center back was particular auspicious thanks to injuries and inexperience, leading to the team parting ways with second-year defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste and veteran David Horst (who missed most of the year with a knee injury). Porter seemed settled on the pairing of Pa Modou Kah (pictured at right) and Mamadou “Futty” Danso at season’s end, but they’ll need depth.

3. Striker: The Timbers seem content to let their most frequent starter at that position, Ryan Johnson, who was second on the team with nine goals, get away. And they’re still negotiating with EPL veteran Piquionne, leaving them with youngsters Maximiliano Urruti and Jose Valencia as the only target forwards on the roster. Wilkinson also expressed a desire to see more production from that position.    

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