PORTLAND, Oregon – The Portland Timbers and Caleb Porter were facing plenty of scrutiny heading into the 2016 season as defending MLS Cup champions.
Would they be as hungry after the emotion of hoisting the club’s first-ever trophy? How would they deal with every opponent's best shot? Would their offseason personnel changes throw them off?
And the Timbers' head coach said they wanted to provide the answer from Day 1. Mission accomplished after their 2-1 win Sunday afternoon at Providence Park over Columbus Crew SC in an MLS Cup rematch – for one week at least.
“I think this game was crucial for a lot of reasons,” Porter said in his postgame press conference. “Obviously we wanted to get three points; we talked about getting off to a good start. But it’s crucial also to put a marker down a little bit. This talk about being complacent and this talk about all these teams wanting to beat us even more, it’s just talk. And we showed today how hungry we are. And we showed today that we picked up right where we left off, that last year wasn’t an anomaly.
“And we showed today that we can be even better, and I’m confident that we can go to another level.”
If Porter sounds bullish, it’s for good reason. His side has now beaten Crew SC – the team many observers have tabbed for a return trip to the league championship match – three straight times, all by a 2-1 count. And they’ve done it with an exacting counterattack style, which proved to be in midseason form despite coming into the match minus two starters from their title-game triumph last year: left back Jorge Villafana and winger Rodney Wallace.
“That was a big emphasis for us in this game, and we showed how dangerous we can be playing on the break,” Porter said.
Portland out-shot Columbus 20-19 and had eight shots on target. The only thing Porter lamented was the inability to put their opponent away early after going up in the first half on a Diego Valeri opener. After Federico Higuian equalized for Crew SC in the 68th minute, on a perfectly executed bicycle kick no less, it required a 79th-minute winner from Fanendo Adi to garner all three points and their first win in March in four seasons under Porter.
“We have to finish the play off,” Porter said of the myriad of missed chances, most notably on a Darlington Nagbe shot that drew woodwork after he was played through beautifully by Valeri in the 61st minute. “We should have been up 2-0, maybe even 3-0, and put the game pretty much to bed.”
Portland also had to cope with the emotion of the pregame festivities surrounding last year’s championship, something Porter said was handled by his group maturely. Their title banner was unveiled and the Timbers Army unfurled an elaborate MLS Cup-themed tifo.
“For the start of the game, it’s what we expected to see, the banner from winning in 2015, that was amazing,” Adi said. “And I think the emotion took us into the game and we did very well.”