BEAVERTON, Ore. – The Portland Timbers’ first foray into the MLS Cup Playoffs couldn’t have been going better.
It was just two years ago, in head coach Caleb Porter’s first year at the helm, and they had swept their way past rival Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference Semifinals. A trip to MLS Cup seemed all the more real when just minutes into the opening leg of the conference championship on the road against Real Salt Lake, Portland took the lead in the 14th minute on an emphatic long-distance strike from captain Will Johnson.
What happened next was a reality check that has stuck with Porter ever since.
RSL scored four unanswered goals to give them a 4-2 advantage heading into the second leg back in Portland, where they added one more goal to take the series and win the right to play in the Cup final.
Now that Portland are headed back to the conference championship series, where they will play host to FC Dallas in Sunday’s first leg at Providence Park (7:30 pm ET; FS1 and FOX Deportes in the US, TSN5 in Canada), the lessons from 2013 still resonate.
“Every time in a situation, you gain experience, wisdom, and you can use that to your advantage,” Porter said after a training session this week at the team facility. “So obviously being in the conference final in 2013, for our players, for myself, our staff, our club as a whole, that’s a real positive.”
After narrowly missing out on the playoffs last season, Porter had his first shot to put those lessons to use in the Conference Semifinals against the rival Vancouver Whitecaps. What followed was a mature display of restraint and reliance on a strong defense as the Timbers played the first leg at home to a scoreless draw before bagging two goals on Vancouver’s home field to win the series.
It marks a departure from the high-flying Timbers team of 2013 that scored five goals in the two semifinal legs against Seattle while also giving up three.
“I think you saw in that Vancouver series there was an approach that was a little bit more patient over two legs,” Porter said. “RSL, we went for that first leg, we got the first goal and then we gave up four unanswered, and it was too big a mountain to climb in that second leg.”
A compact, organized approach could be especially important against Dallas, a lightning fast team that finished second in the West with 52 regular season goals. And that’s also where a mature, experienced approach should come in handy.
Enter veteran center back Nat Borchers, a key member from that 2013 RSL team that humbled the Timbers, one of a handful of experienced players brought in at key positions since that season.
He’s part of a completely revamped backline that also includes Premier League veteran Liam Ridgewell and outside backs Jorge Villafana, a veteran in his own right from time served at Chivas USA, and Jamaican youngster Alvas Powell, who at 21 years old is the team’s youngest starter.
Borchers, however, has experience in these situations – and then some.
He helped guide RSL to seven straight playoff appearances and also was part of the team that won the 2009 MLS Cup.
“He brings experience, he’s been through this time and time again,” Porter said. “You’ve been through something time and time again; it’s second nature. So he believes in the postseason that he’s going to move in into the next round. That belief is huge, that belief is infectious. I think it rubs off on the players when you see his calm, quiet intensity.”
The tangible results of Borchers’ presence on the team this year were obvious as the Timbers were one of the league’s stingiest defenses. The intangible, however, was perhaps even more important, especially when Portland struggled at times this year, not cinching up a playoff spot until the final day of the regular season.
“You have to go through difficult moments in a season in order to find out what you’re all about,” Borchers said. “And this team has done that.”
Borchers said those RSL teams always had plenty of talent, but the teams that made deep runs had something more.
“For example in 2013, it was a year that was maybe a transition year people talked about,” Borchers said. “But because our locker room was so tight and so good, we were able to kind of be lifted by the guys in the locker room and make it to MLS Cup.
“This is a similar situation, except I think we have more talent. The locker room is really tight, everybody is in there fighting for each other, and it’s special for sure.”