After hanging on by a thread to start October, Portland Timbers now thriving in 4-3-3 formation

BEAVERTON, Ore. – Caleb Porter was being tested.

The Portland Timbers head coach would say life in professional sports is always a test. At this particular moment in the Timbers season, however, the pressure was hard to deny.

They had just lost for the third time in their last five games in a 1-0 home defeat to Sporting Kansas City on Oct. 3, which came on the heels of an especially dismal performance in a 2-0 loss Sept. 20 to the New York Red Bulls, also in front of Portland’s famously passionate crowd.

It left the Timbers out of the playoff picture and facing two very tough road matches – against Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy – out of their final three games of the regular season.

Missing the MLS Cup Playoffs for a second straight year – after advancing to the Western Conference Championship in Porter’s first year at the helm – seemed a likely conclusion to the 2015 campaign.

And as happens in professional sports when a team fails to live up to expectations, Porter faced questions over whether his team had set their goals high enough. There were rumblings on social media over his job status and even an MLS commentator suggesting Porter would return to coaching at the college level – where he was highly successful at the University of Akron before taking over in Portland.

A highly touted Designed Player signing of young Argentine attacker Lucas Melano wasn’t producing results, while the departure of popular veteran forward Gaston Fernandez had perplexed yet more onlookers.

“Everybody lives in their own fish bowl,” Porter said, looking back on the moment. “In our fish bowl, I’m in it, the players are in it, you guys are in it, we’re all in this fish bowl. And sometimes it seems worse than it is. You go in other team’s fish bowls and you go in their scrums and you go on their blogs, you go in their supporters’ bars, it’s the same thing.

“This is MLS, you know what I mean?”

Yet, with all that mounting, however fair, Porter and his team responded.

What has happened since the Kansas City loss has been well documented, leading up to their place in Leg 2 of the Western Conference Semifinal Series of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs that will take place Sunday against the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place (10 pm ET, FS1 in US, TSN/RDS in Canada).

Unlikely road victories against RSL and LA – the Galaxy win being an eye-popping 5-2 rout – and 12 goals in four games leading up to a scoreless draw against Vancouver in Leg 1 of the conference semis last weekend was vindication for the third-year head coach and of the club’s direction as a whole.

“When push comes to shove and the pressure tightens and the bullets start flying, some players, they duck and run,” Porter said. “Some coaches do the same.”

Their season-long goal-scoring problem, despite leading the league in shots, appeared to have been fixed. Their status as one of the best defensive teams in MLS, a label they’ve worn all season, now makes them all the more formidable for opponents.

“You always question that maybe something is missing, but we weren’t that worried because we knew that we were playing good,” left back Jorge Villafana said. “… We knew the time was going to come, and it came.”

Porter said it all came down to keeping the faith.

“A lot of times when you’re not getting results, even though you’re right there, you think it’s worse than it is, the players think it’s worse than it is, the media compounds that, that’s just a reality,” Porter said. “But I think we’ve stayed very insulated, and part of that is we have a lot of trust in this club, coaches to players, players to coaches, owner to GM, all that.”

Of course, the turnaround didn’t come out of thin air.

Heading into the RSL match, following the Kansas City loss, Porter made a tactical tweak by moving Darlington Nagbe from the right wing to a central midfield role. Porter also brought in another attacker, in this case Melano, who had been on the bench in the previous two games, and switched from his normal 4-2-3-1 formation to a kind of 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 hybrid that featured one holding midfielder. It allowed one of the Timbers’ most dangerous players, Nagbe, to have a bigger role in the offense.

Porter said it was his preferred formation from his college days, and it’s a big reason for Portland’s offensive renaissance.

“Something was missing,” Porter said. “… You look at [Nagbe], and he wasn’t contributing as much as we thought he could. We had talked about moving him into the center. …

“And we had questions too of would it work, but we were in a situation where it made sense.”

In the run-in to the playoffs, it resulted in three goals and an assist for Nagbe and three goals for striker Fanendo Adi and an attack with renewed confidence after it had averaged just a goal per game most of the season.

“It’s amazing,” Adi said after the regular season. “This is what we’ve been looking forward to the whole season. … We’re just going to enjoy it, and we’re very glad and we’re very motivated. It’s beautiful, that’s all I can say.”

The doubters, as they do when a team suddenly is winning again, have been silenced – for now. Rumors of Porter’s departure, which he called “ridiculous” at the time, feel all the more laughable.

But Porter also knows that you’re only as good as your last result, and he said the team is hyper-focused to give their supporters at least one more home game in 2015 – which in this case would come in another conference championship series.

It’s a process, he said, which prevented him from ever questioning his ability to lead.

“I’ve been a head coach for quite awhile, so you learn to just stay focused on the process and continue to believe in what you know. And yet I’m always challenging myself all the time, privately, and questioning what could I do differently. … I’m always going to look at ways to stimulate things. I don’t always tell you I’m doing that, but I’m doing it.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for