BEAVERTON, Ore. – Portland Timbers fans by now are well warned to beware the Ides of March – at least under head coach Caleb Porter.
With Porter at the helm, the Timbers are winless in the month of March heading into Saturday’s away matchup with Cascadia rivals Vancouver Whitecaps, the team’s last chance to remedy that problem in his third season in charge. And last season, their slow start – five points from the season’s first eight games – ultimately cost Portland a shot at the playoffs.
Needless to say, the natives are growing restless now that the Timbers have posted three draws in their first three games, at home against Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy and last week away to Sporting Kansas City.
So it might come as some surprise that Portland’s three points are the most they’ve gathered through three games since Porter took the reigns ahead of the 2013 season – and they just so happen to have come against the two MLS Cup champions (LA, SKC) and one runner up from the last two seasons.
Those two facts, Porter said, have squashed any frustration that would otherwise come from going winless in three.
“We’re unbeaten and have played probably a heavier front-end schedule than most teams,” Porter said following Tuesday’s training session at the team facility, the Timbers’ first action since playing Sporting to a scoreless draw over the weekend. “… We’re obviously playing good teams, and we’ve got three points, unbeaten, two clean sheets. You can look at the negative and say yeah we haven’t won, but we’re in the hunt, we’re right there in the pack and I think we’ve been managing the injuries, playing difficult opponents, we’ve been performing well. So yeah, I think the energy of the group is very good.”
Injuries are another factor that have Porter optimistic from their early performances this season.
Portland are without their captain, Will Johnson (broken leg), and their best offensive player, Diego Valeri (ACL). They then lost Johnson’s backup, Ben Zemanski, to a preseason ACL injury. And defensive midfielder Diego Chara missed their scoreless draw in Week 1 against RSL.
Plus, this week, the Timbers will have to deal with the absence of right back Alvas Powell while he’s on international duty with Jamaica and possibly Jack Jewsbury, their third option at Johnson’s midfield spot and Powell's backup, after he goes through league-mandated protocol for a possible concussion suffered against SKC.
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“It’s not enough, but it’s more than we’ve been on and it’s more than when we won the West in 2013,” Porter said, referring to their regular season conference championship in his first year. “For me it’s all about the next game, and that’s what we’re focused on, and stock will go up and down with all the teams. … We can’t go five points in the first eight. We can’t do that, and we won’t do that; that won’t happen.”
One big positive has been the Timbers defense, with only two goals allowed, both from a 2-2 draw on March 15 against the Galaxy, and just one from the run of play. First-year goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey echoed Porter’s comments of keeping perspective, while saying they just need to fine tune a few things and the wins will come.
“We’ve played well,” Kwarasey said. “We had a huge chance against Salt Lake after 91 minutes or something, and we led against LA when there was 30 seconds left. It’s just small, small details where we could have had seven points now. We just have to keep working, and it’s a long season, and there’s nothing to be frustrated about yet.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.