PORTLAND, Ore.—After missing out on the Audi 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs, it would have been easy for the Portland Timbers to rethink their approach to team-building.
That season, the Timbers added two new Designated Players – striker Fanendo Adi and center back Liam Ridgewell – though neither carried name recognition or big-time international success. And while headlines all over the world went on to herald MLS as an emerging destination for premier talent in 2015 because of the arrivals of players like Sebastian Giovinco, Kaká, and David Villa, the Timbers’ moves barely made for a blip on the radar.
In came veteran center back Nat Borchers, goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey (who had World Cup experience with Ghana in 2014) and Colombian winger Dairon Asprilla. Out went a number of players who played key roles in the club's run to the 2013 Western Conference Championship, such as central defender Pa Modou Kah, left back Michael Harrington and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.
Many onlookers questioned whether the Timbers had what it took to keep up in the MLS arms race.
But for head coach Caleb Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson, it was all part of the plan. One that has been validated with their second trip to the Western Conference Championship in the last three seasons; they will meet FC Dallas in a two-legged series starting on November 22 at Providence Park.
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“I think there’s no one way to skin the MLS cat,” said Porter, as the team returned to training after beating Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps in the Conference Semifinals. “You see teams that have done it the way we’ve done it, and it’s worked out. You’ve seen teams that have done it like the way the LA Galaxy has done it, and that’s worked out too. There’s no right or wrong, but when you’re clear in how you’re doing it, I think that’s the key: being clear in your philosophy in how you’re running your club.”
Building a roster with depth appears to be the trend in 2015. All four conference finalists – with the New York Red Bulls facing off against Columbus Crew SC in the East – lack a Giovinco- or Kaká-like star. Also, New York, Dallas and Columbus have utilized non-DP means, including their strong academy systems and the MLS SuperDraft to bolster their roster.
Yet putting the Timbers in that category would be a bit simplistic.
They do have the highest payroll of any of the four remaining teams and, with their academy still a work in progress, Portland has developed this roster mostly through the international market and a successful trade for Borchers.
Midfielder Darlington Nagbe, a recent US national team call-up, is the only regular contributor to be drafted. He was selected before the Timbers' inaugural season in 2011, but has had five years to develop.
“Our academy will have the same benefit over time, but it’s a gradual process,” said Wilkinson. "So we have spent money, and we’ve spent it because it’s needed to be spent. And we spent it in areas that we believed would benefit this organization. Not all of it are glamor spends, and some of them show over time that they’re well worth the investment, but I think once you start to look at the group as a whole, it’s a very strong group.”
It all starts, of course, with attacking midfielder Diego Valeri, a relative unknown when he was signed ahead of the 2013 season out of Argentina’s Lanus. Then Nagbe, quickly ascending to become one of the league’s top talents. And up front, Adi – another relative unknown from FC Copenhagen, one who led the team with 16 goals in 2015 after some up-and-down adjustment periods.
In defense, Borchers, Ridgewell, right back Alvas Powell, a 21-year-old Jamaican international, and veteran left back Jorge Villafana, a former Chivas USA journeyman who took over for Harrington, have formed one of the league’s top back lines.
Throw in proven veteran midfielders Diego Chara – the team’s first DP signing, who has been around since the beginning – and Jack Jewsbury, another MLS Timbers original, along with Canada national teamer Will Johnson, and the vision becomes clear.
“We have a team concept, we have a lot of depth, which has allowed us to manage injuries, international call-ups," Porter said. "It’s allowed us to be flexible at times tactically."
It's easy to talk up Portland’s front-office moves when the team is winning, but that wasn’t always the case.
During an up-and-down summer, Portland parted ways with veteran forward Gaston Fernandez, a popular yet streaky player, despite a struggling offense. They added another DP, young Argentine forward Lucas Melano; his as-of-yet limited impact has led to some unrest in the Timbers’ “fishbowl,” as Porter put it.
Yet, both coach and GM kept the faith.
“The belief in the group has never wavered, especially when we’re dealing with public perceptions and opinion, and you have to validate some of that,” Wilkinson said. “But the confidence and the belief in the group never wavered, which I think is really showing payback to the organization right now.”
That’s not to say that Portland won’t ever be in the market for a name player – Porter, Wilkinson and team owner Merritt Paulson continue to say as much. They were in the mix for US star Clint Dempsey, who signed with rival Seattle Sounders in 2013, and Paulson had discussed the team's interest in eventual Montreal Impact signing Didier Drogba.
“I think there’s sometimes this illusion that we won’t go and sign a big name, but that’s not the case,” Porter said. “If we have a big-name player that wants to be here that fits within what we want to do, and some of those guys that have been thrown out, they haven’t been options for us, they just haven’t.
"If there’s a big-name player that wants to come here, we’ll look at the price, we’ll look at the fit in terms of our system. We certainly won’t pass up that opportunity.”
Even without that type of name acquisition, the Timbers have reached the doorstep of the 2015 MLS Cup after a second deep postseason run in the past three years. Porter cited the group’s chemistry, which paid dividends when the chips were down: Portland sat below the red line with a month left to play.
The Timbers then won their final three regular-season games to hit the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams.
“This is just a team [where] we play for each other,” said Adi, who has played alongside Ukrainian star Andriy Shevchenko. “When you have sometimes those big stars, you have to play for them. But this team everyone is playing for each other, so that’s just what the difference is.
"And playing for each other I think is the most important part of the game, so we don’t really need big stars. If we are going all the way, what do we need big stars for? We are doing it, right?”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.