"'Outspoken' is not what I'm going for. I like the 'accessible' descriptor maybe a little bit better, and I think that's part of what the Timbers is – we aim to listen."
Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson certainly doesn't shy away from the strong opinions, and he was on fire during last week's appearance on ESPN FC's Max and Herc Podcast, claiming there's "more pressure on the head coach of the Portland Timbers than there is on the head coach of the LA Galaxy."
If we stick to the binary, perhaps Paulson's underselling exactly what erstwhile Galaxy boss Bruce Arena brought to that gig: a stabilizing gravity that absorbed any heat. The Galaxy don't become the team everyone loves to love to hate without Arena papering over the Landon Donovan/David Beckham dust-up and establishing an 8 1/2-year reign as California King, following LA's three-coach-in-four-years attempt to find their man after deciding Sigi Schmid was no longer the right fit.
And you're free to check in with Curt Onalfo if you think Paulson is on point.
The Timbers' owner is correct in identifying unique elements of the Timbers operation, given the light professional sports competition in town, close-knit community and wildly enthusiastic fan base. But what's really happening here is an owner making an emphatic case for his coach, his club and his city. That's not necessarily his job, but it is good business. This Brooklyn boy can appreciate that hustle.
The fun starts when you consider Paulson is right about LA not breaking the league barometer – the pressure is highest in Toronto.
The Reds have spent nine years trying to figure this MLS thing out, and the last few years have seen the tide shift toward success, adding complementary big-ticket pieces Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and capstone acquisition Sebastian Giovinco for tens of millions in fees and salaries, high enough to boost their budget charge toward the very top of the league pyramid even before we bump down to the Targeted Allocation Money and Academy spending. Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment might have diversified interests, but you're not throwing down those dollars without expecting on-field return.
Bradley worked his way into the captaincy by the start of 2015, and with Altidore and Giovinco on board, that season broke an eight-year run of empty postseasons … only to have rival Montreal crush their hopes and dreams in a blowout loss in the opening round.
An offseason of tranquility – and there's no other way to describe simply adding MLS veterans to the core for a franchise that churned through eight coaches in eight seasons before landing on Greg Vanney – did nothing to lower the expectations, with Giovinco coming off an MVP campaign, Bradley embedded in the fabric of Toronto's sports scene and Altidore finally healthy and dominant in the same season. Free agent acquisition Drew Moor eventually became the defensive linchpin of a suffocating 3-5-2 that drove TFC not only to its first playoff victory, but an Eastern Conference Championship.
That cathartic postseason run, in which – for all of Montreal's best efforts in a rollicking conference final – TFC wasn't truly challenged until Seattle held them scoreless during MLS Cup, ended just shy of surmounting the final summit: Stefan Frei made "The Save" and fullback Justin Morrow tragically suffered crossbar-assisted penalty stop. Al Pacino told us football was a game of inches, ha.
Look, that one stung. These players, these fans, this club now know the deepest pangs of defeat. To lose without achievement is but a frustration; to get thisclose and gut-punched, that's lifelong. Capricious as the soccer gods are, TFC might not get there again.
Yet with the now well-established core returning again, the bar for success is Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup contention, not to mention threatening a domestic treble if they can make it back-to-back Canadian Championships. In a town with no titles in the big five North American sports since the Blue Jays took a pair in 1992-93, Toronto FC carries the weight of current contender.
Any extended slide, any underperforming star, any academy product unable to make the leap – these all now crank up the need for action, an expectation that this is beneath the station of a club now regarded as one of the MLS's shining successes.
The Galaxy got trophies on trophies on trophies, and lack an extended run of futility. Portland's got a market size limit and a ring.
Toronto? They know from the abyss. And they're not going back. Not without a fight.
You taking the gig?