As the Best of 2013 continues on MLSsoccer.com, we're counting down the 10 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. On Dec. 30 we'll reveal the Story of the Year, as voted by our panel of 20 editors, writers, videographers and statistics specialists.
Portland Timbers beat writer Dan Itel keeps the countdown moving at No. 8, where we find a memorable season for "P-T-F-C." For the first time since the team joined MLS in 2011, the fans weren't the only thing worth watching in the Rose City this year, even if the Timbers' run to the MLS Cup was cut short.
To understand the significance of the Portland Timbers’ season in 2013, you only need to look to their final game – even if it was a loss - against Real Salt Lake.
With RSL reveling in an impending trip to the MLS Cup after defeating the Timbers in the second leg of the Western Conference Championship on Nov. 24, the Timbers’ supporters at JELD-WEN Field began a thunderous chant of “P-T-F-C, P-T-F-C” that easily drowned out any noise from the opposition’s boisterous celebration.
The show of gratitude – capping a season when the Timbers exceeded almost all expectations set by outside observers - was not a departure from the intensely loyal support. But this particular chant oozed with passion, so deafening many believed it was the loudest the venerable stadium has ever been since the team joined MLS in 2011.
No, the Timbers have never been left wanting when it came to fan support, with the raucous atmosphere at JELD-WEN becoming an international phenomenon. And with the club’s brazen owner Merritt Paulson and his ubiquitous presence on social media, the larger-than-life personality of former head coach John Spencer that gave way to the brash self-assuredness of new boss Caleb Porter (right), there have never been a shortage of headlines to come out of Portland.
But on that chilly November night, with “P-T-F-C, P-T-F-C” raining down from the stands, the league saw just what it looks like when the Timbers truly matter, and when the product on the field is finally relevant. It’s why the rise of the Portland Timbers is one of MLSsoccer.com’s top stories of 2013.
Said Porter, after the finale: “I feel like I’m the luckiest coach alive.”
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Where we stand now, with the Timbers having secured a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League, basking in the first-ever postseason trip and a serious flirtation with the MLS Cup, it is truly impressive considering where it all started.
Less than two weeks into December a year ago, Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson had traded for Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, Ryan Johnson. They added Argentinean wizard Diego Valeri in January, not to mention the controversial-at-the-time trade for veteran goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts the previous summer.
Which is to say, absolutely nobody knew what to expect out of the Timbers in 2013.
But almost from Day 1, the moments of brilliance began piling up.
They overcame a 3-1 deficit to draw eventual Supporters’ Shield champion New York Red Bulls 3-3 on opening night March 3 behind Valeri’s Goal-of-the-Year runner-up streaking volley, a harbinger of his MVP-like brilliance.
They overcame two deficits on the road to beat eventual MLS champion Sporting Kansas City on April 27, amidst a franchise-record 15-game unbeaten streak in league play. The made it to the US Open Cup semifinals. They played confident, possession-oriented soccer, and helped coin a term that was on the lips of everyone in the Rose City: Porterball.
“I’m not bothered by aesthetics or style,” Porter said during the team’s midseason unbeaten streak. “Everybody wants to make it into that. I’m about winning games. Simple. I could care less how it looks.”
It looked great when the Timbers dumped the archrival Seattle Sounders on Oct. 13 at JELD-WEN and then again in perhaps Portland’s finest moment in franchise history, a satisfying defeat of the Sounders in the conference semifinals, 5-3 on aggregate in the two-game series.
The final game, a 3-2 win Nov. 7 on their home turf at JELD-WEN, sparked a celebration by the Timbers Army that lasted well after the final whistle.
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The season belonged to the team, but don’t overlook the individual accomplishments. Valeri finished as one of two playerswith double-digit goals (a team-high 10) and assists (league-high 13), Will Johnson enjoyed a career year and a Best XI selection, Ricketts won Goalkeeper of the Year and Rodney Wallace notched a career-high seven goals and six assists.
And then there was Darlington Nagbe. The Timbers’ No. 2 overall pick in their inaugural SuperDraft in 2011 finally lived up to the hype under the close tutelage of Porter, who coached him at Akron and has known him since childhood. Nagbe posted a career-high nine goals and four assists, but it was explosiveness that made him stand out as both the focus of opposing defenders and eager-minded US national team fans.
His game-winning goal Nov. 2 in the Timbers’ 2-1 victory against the Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the conference semifinals - when he came streaking across the box, seamlessly controlled a Kalif Alhassan cross, took one touch to bypass a defender and then unleashed a blistering right-footed blast into the back of the net - was perhaps the finest of his career. And that’s saying something.
Can the entire group pull off a similar feat in 2014, or perhaps even one better? Who knows. We know it will be loud at JELD-WEN come rain or shine, and the chant is there to stay, even after the players have left the field.
Now just imagine the passion behind a chant if the Timbers ever raise a trophy there.