PORTLAND, Ore. – The origins of the Portland Timbers’ astonishing 2013 season, now at its midway point, can be traced to a week of reckoning almost exactly a year ago.
Last year’s Timbers had just been dismantled in a 3-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids to complete a month of June that saw the struggling side fall to an amateur team in the US Open Cup and manage just four wins up to that point. A week later, head coach John Spencer had been fired, and the rebuilding process officially began.
Where the Timbers are today is almost a complete reversal.
Portland are coming off a decisive 3-0 victory over Colorado on June 23 that vaulted them into a share of first place in the Western Conference standings. Then the Timbers completed a thrilling 3-2 victory last week over FC Dallas that put them in the semifinals of the USOC for the first time in franchise history. And now they enter the second half of the season within sight of not only the conference summit, but just two games from their first-ever piece of major hardware.
The Timbers haven’t lost since their second regular season game of the season, March 9 against the Montreal Impact. Their 15-game unbeaten streak – 18 across all competitions – is a franchise record in MLS and fast approaching the all-time MLS record of 19 in a single season set by FC Dallas in 2010.
“I think this team believes that they’re one of the best teams in the league,” head coach Caleb Porter said. “When I looked in their eyes after the [Colorado game], they’re happy but it looked like they expected it. I think that shows that we have a realistic belief in this club that we can be a realistic contender to compete for trophies here. I don’t know about benchmarks, but we’re moving in the right direction and the biggest thing is that locker room believes that we can be one of the better teams in the league.”
The Timbers' breakout season could be even better if you take away some early-season defensive struggles.
All three of the New York Red Bulls’ goals in their season-opening draw against Portland on March 3 came on head-scratching defensive gaffes. A week later, Portland dominated Montreal and outshot the Impact 19-9, but came away with a 2-1 defeat after a pair of mental lapses.
A penalty kick goal for Dallas, on a call Porter deemed controversial, in the teams’ first meeting May 8 resulted in a 1-1 draw. And to start the month of June, Portland squandered a 2-0 lead on the road against the Chicago Fire in a game that ended in a 2-2 draw.
“It’s funny because there have been a lot of games where we’ve been unhappy even though we haven’t lost,” Porter said. “I think that helps to keep the group grounded and pushing. We don’t think we have it figured out. We’re not where we want to be at this point. This group understands that it takes 34 games to accomplish what we need to.”
Of course there were some games Portland could have been considered lucky to escape with points.
In two straight games in March, Portland used second-half rallies to erase deficits on the road against Seattle and Colorado. The Timbers drew in both games, 1-1 against Seattle on March 16, and 2-2 against Colorado on March 30.
“Like I’ve said from day one, highs low, lows high, move on, file it away,” Porter said. “If there are things to correct, correct them, but we’re not going to panic or abandon what we’re doing if we fall short. If we win we’re not going to think everything is perfect, we’re going to keep pushing and keep staying hungry and keep staying humble as well.”
One thing is certain, the Timbers aren’t doing it with smoke and mirrors.
They have dominant wins against quality teams in the form of a 1-0 victory over then-first-place Dallas June 15. They beat Houston 2-0 at home on April 6 and Sporting KC 3-2 on the road April 27.
The Timbers are the league’s highest-scoring team with 28 goals. But no player has more than six goals; five players have scored at least four goals.
Team captain and midfielder Will Johnson, who leads the team with six goals to go along with three assists, has emerged as one of the league’s premier on-field leaders, and has thrived in a box-to-box role. Attacker Rodney Wallace was pulled off the scrap heap, evolving from a seldom-used defender to one of the league’s most dangerous wingers with four goals and five assists in just nine starts.
And attacking midfielder Diego Valeri has proved himself to be just what Porter said he needed in the offseason, the brain of the team that makes it all work. The Argentine has four goals and four assists.
Still, Porter insists his team is only scratching the surface of what it is capable of.
“We won’t just assume that because we’re getting wins that everything will be perfect,” Porter said. “We want to keep growing as a team and we’re capable of still getting better in several areas.”
And Johnson knows things won't get any easier.
Portland face two games apiece against Cascadia rivals Seattle and Vancouver. There are also two more games to come against Real Salt Lake, with whom the Timbers are tied with atop the Western Conference standings, as well as against two-time defending MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy.
“It’s good. It gets even tougher now,” Johnson said. “No more flying under the radar, we’ve made too many statements. People know we’re a good team and we’re going to get everybody’s best shot now. We’ve got to be ready for it.”
Dan Itel covers the Portland Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.