Waaaay back in preseason, Portland were among a group of teams that club executives, media and fans all thought could be MLS Cup contenders. They had a really strong roster on paper, with a great blend of top-end talent and depth; plenty of players with MLS experience; a well-respected head coach who thrives in tournament-style environments; and a history of winning.
Their exact path is a surprise, though. For those who believed in the Timbers’ chances would probably have foreseen quite a different route to MLS Cup.
Portland navigated a barrage of injuries that forced them to use five goalkeepers this season while spending much of the year without two Designated Players. United States international midfielder Eryk Williamson and Peru's Andy Polo suffered season-ending ailments. Head coach Giovanni Savarese had to patch together lineups to keep the team afloat for long stretches, mixing and matching any and all available bodies.
“It feels justified,” general manager Gavin Wilkinson told MLSsoccer.com. “With the amount of things we’ve managed off the field and on the field, you’re reminded daily about the pressure sports provide. The people that we’re fortunate enough to work with and the players we have in the club have been remarkable.”
Starting at the top, Portland have navigated a fluid Designated Player list as they manage the cap. Diego Chara was once a DP but is no longer. Ditto for Diego Valeri. Sebastian Blanco blossomed into the team’s talisman, while Yimmi Chara and Jaroslaw Niezgoda were not cheap in filling the other two slots.
Blanco led Portland to win last year's MLS is Back Tournament and was the MVP favorite before a season-ending ACL tear. It didn’t take too long for him to return to form this year, with seven goals and seven assists in just 1,182 regular-season minutes before two goals across 140 playoff minutes thus far.
Niezgoda returned from his own ACL tear later than Blanco (he also suffered the injury later in 2020) but is fully fit now. Yimmi Chara was a crucial constant in helping the Timbers navigate the worst injury patches.
“Big players perform in big moments,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve been fortunate to have the Valeri’s, the Blanco’s, the Diego Chara’s, now Yimmi Chara, the (Larrys) Mabiala’s – you can list a number of players.”
Portland have enjoyed a great success rate in the international market all up and down their roster. Of their 14 players who played the most minutes, just one (goalkeeper Steve Clark) is American. The rest were acquired from abroad.
Clark was the only American in the starting XI for the Western Conference Final against Real Salt Lake.
“When we look at signing foreigners, there is a long-term plan of getting them integrated into the group," Wilkinson said. "There are many clubs who bring in international players with the view of selling, whereas we bring them in with the view of winning and keeping in the club. But if there’s an offer that benefits everyone, we’ll entertain it. Putting ourselves in this game, it solidifies a lot of what we’re doing.”
Part of the difficulty of having such a heavy-international influence on a squad is managing the cap. Acquisition fees get added to players’ salaries to form a budget charge.
Portland have worked creatively to amortize transfer fees and structure deals, using Allocation Money to buy down budget charges. But a stagnant salary cap – stemming from collective bargaining re-negotiations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic – has also influenced the club into some tough decisions, like this summer's trade of Jeremy Ebobisse to the San Jose Earthquakes.
“We also have to recognize and thank Jeremy Ebobisse as well,” Wilkinson said. “He was part of this club for many years, he helped us get to this stage even though he’s not with us. He is a class act.”
With an abundance of experience and playmakers, plus a manager in Savarese who has thrived in tournaments throughout his career in Portland and the New York Cosmos, the Timbers have another shot at MLS Cup.
This time, they can win it in front of their home fans.
“To be in the position to play in an MLS Cup game, you need to have some things go your way and get some luck," Wilkinson said. "But the things we do well is our culture and character of the group. The quality of the staff, the quality of the players. For me, it’s a tremendous feeling.”