BEAVERTON, Ore. – That one stung.
The Portland Timbers were playing Western Conference rival Real Salt Lake about as tough as they ever have Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium. But a missed opportunity here and a defensive mistake there, and once again, the Timbers were sent packing from Salt Lake empty-handed following a 1-0 loss.
And now, winless in their first seven games of the season, Portland face perhaps their most seminal moment under head coach Caleb Porter heading into another tough road test Sunday against the Houston Dynamo (3 pm ET; UniMas).
“It was a tough one, no doubt about it,” Timbers captain Will Johnson said following Tuesday’s session at the team training facility, the club’s first meeting since Saturday’s loss. “Our game plan was put together fantastically well by the coaching staff, and we executed probably 99 percent of the plays that we should have, so it was really tough. This game will test you like that; it’s not a game for the weak. It’s a character-building moment for us, for sure. I think we can draw upon it.”
The Timbers had more shots on goal, four to their opponents' three, and outpossessed RSL, something very few teams are able to do, especially at Rio Tinto. And if not for a handful of spectacular Nick Rimando saves, the Timbers would probably be telling a different story.
As it is, Porter is left explaining an unexpectedly rough start to a season that started with such high expectations following last year’s first-place finish in the Western Conference.
“You can’t be a weak leader and go through this,” Porter said. “I’ve never gone through seven games not winning a game in my life, as a player or a coach. But I think you really find out how good a coach you are, how strong a leader you are in times like this. So I’m very motivated, more motivated than ever, to sort it out and correct it and get this thing turned around.”
With just four points from seven games, Portland know time is running short to do just that. Since 2011, when the playoff Knockout Round was introduced, only two of 30 teams that qualified for the postseason did so with fewer than eight points in their first seven games.
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“Spirit in the group is good; we’re together,” Johnson said. “We know this is not how we wanted to start the season, but it’s testing our character. It’s testing us to the maximum, that’s for sure. When results go against you like they have, and you don’t get the results that you want, the tension and pressure builds, and it can tear apart a team. But that’s not happening with this group. We’re sticking together, and we’re going to keep fighting and fight harder and do whatever it takes to turn this around.”
Porter said that aside from one outlier – their 4-4 tie April 5 against the Seattle Sounders – the main theme surrounding the team’s struggles has been finishing. The Timbers have just eight goals – with just seven scored by Timbers players – this season.
“If you’re looking at a seven-game theme, the attacking production hasn’t been what it needs to be, and it hasn’t been consistent,” Porter said. “It’s not that we’re not getting chances, it’s just in those key moments doing a better job finishing.”
Porter has also continued to point to the positives aspects of the team’s play throughout the season, something that’s important for a head coach to do, he said. But it doesn’t mean he’s happy with moral victories.
“No one is more competitive than me, there’s no one who takes the losses harder than me, but it’s important as a leader of this club, the coach in this situation, that I make sure the players understand what’s right and what’s wrong and that I give them the appropriate perspective,” Porter said.
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.