Don't expect the Portland Timbers to rest on their championship laurels during the 2016 MLS season, writes Brian Straus.
It’s called the Double Post Bar, and it’s scheduled to open Sunday when the Portland Timbers open their 2016 season at Providence Park. The bar’s location—behind section 109 in the stadium’s north end—is important. It’s for the Timbers Army members who create one of the most spectacular atmospheres in sports. The local beers and 48 tap handles definitely are important. And the name is important. It’s a reminder that games and seasons can be altered by bad bounces or good fortune, and that champions often are the ones who put themselves in position to profit.
Darlington Nagbe shifted inside, closer to Diego Valeri, and the increasingly dynamic Timbers hit the MLS Cup playoffs on a three-game win streak. On Oct. 29, they met Sporting Kansas City in a winner-take-all, Western Conference knockout match. Portland’s Maxi Urruti scored in the 118th minute to level the score at 2-2 and send the game to what would become the longest penalty kick shootout in league history. In the ninth round, SKC defender Saad Abdul-Salaam, who once played for Timbers coach Caleb Porter at the University of Akron, had the chance to end it. But his effort struck the inside of the left post, then the inside of the right, and bounced out.
“Our crowd, our fans, our supporters, the Timbers Army, I think they were the ones who kept that last ball out of the net,” Porter said afterward. “It was either them or God because the thing bounced twice, and I don’t how it didn’t go in. But it didn’t.”
In the 11th round, Portland goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey denied SKC counterpart Jon Kempin, and the Timbers survived and advanced. There would be five more playoff games, including the 2-1 MLS Cup final win in Columbus, but it was the double-post penalty kick that inspired the bar’s name. The connection between Timbers fans and their team is real and according to Porter, it was tangible that night against Sporting.
His players then made the most of their environment and good fortune. The Timbers were present, prepared and proactive. Focus on that, Porter said, and the trophies will follow.
“My goal in leading this club is to be the sort of club that can go into any game home or away, playing any team, and have a realistic belief, a consistent way of playing and a consistent mentality, so that every season we’re in a position where we get enough points to be in the playoffs,” Porter told SI.com this week. “That gives you a chance to make the run to win MLS Cup. Some years you might win it. Some years you won’t. That’s just the reality of soccer. But that’s a healthy club. That’s a winning club … That’s all you can ask for. We will win trophies with that approach. We can’t win it every year, but we will win trophies over time.”
A conversation with Porter as he prepares to take his team into Sunday’s opener (a rematch with Columbus) inevitably focuses less on last fall’s playoff run or the final and more on his three years in charge. He proudly rattles off the statistics. Only three teams have more regular season points. No team has lost fewer regular season games, and the Timbers have suffered two consecutive defeats (and never more) only three times. There’s no trophy for any of that, but there’s probably no trophy without it.
The Rose City first welcomed pro soccer in 1975, when the original Timbers lost the NASL final. Through 27 more seasons in multiple leagues, various iterations of the Timbers never played for another trophy. And since the Trail Blazers claimed the NBA title in ’77, Portland hadn’t celebrated a "major" pro sports championship (the Thorns did win the National Women’s Soccer League crown in 2011). Considering the wait and the Timbers’ popularity, the reception following December’s MLS Cup triumph shouldn’t have come as a shock. So many fans welcomed the team at the airport that authorities closed down the road outside. Some 20,000 filled the streets for a parade despite rain the next day, and there were around 10,000 at an evening rally at Providence Park.
“It was pouring down rain and there were questions about whether it was even worth having a parade. Were people even going to show up,” said Timbers veteran Jack Jewsbury, who’s been with the club since it entered MLS in 2011. “Even though we knew what kind of class of fans we had here, I never thought it would be what it was. That was truly a special moment that I’ll always remember … It had been so long since the Trail Blazers had won, for us to share that day with them meant a lot to us. For the fans, the guys who’ve been around since 2011, through the ups and downs, it was special.”
That’s where the movie typically ends. The city celebrates their immortal heroes and a mission accomplished. The wait is over, and a title has been won that can never be taken away. But that isn’t the script Porter wants to write. He’s in this for the long haul—he’s hoping for at least a decade in Portland, he said—and there’s no room for swagger or a champion’s complacency.
“We want to create this mindset, this constant mentality—a culture of winning and a culture of how to think the right way to win,” Porter said. “That’s why we went into the playoffs and nothing changed. It’s not that we were more excited. It’s not that we felt more pressure. It’s always the same … Winning teams are business-like all the time. They’ve got ice in their veins. There’s no big game or little game. Every game is the same in my mind. That’s how we project a consistent mindset game in and game out.”
That’s why the observances before Sunday’s match against Columbus will be limited. There will be a championship banner raising, a few seconds to reflect, and then kickoff. Porter didn’t want to deal with the distraction of a ring ceremony, and he certainly didn’t want to rub December’s result in Crew’s faces.
“The difference in being a good club and a great club comes down to the psychology and the culture and the little things,” Porter said. “Ultimately, this is a new season. We want to take the opportunity to put closure on the championship with our fans. But once the whistle blows, it’s a new start.”
Said Jewsbury, “It really is a brand new season—a brand new team.”
Porter and GM Gavin Wilkinson desired some turnover and looked to strike a balance between continuity and change.
They didn’t necessarily want left back Jorge Villafaña to leave for Mexico’s Santos Laguna or midfielder Rodney Wallace to go to FC Arouca in Portugal, but keeping a championship team together in a salary cap league was always going to be tough. Porter embraced it.
The Timbers added defenders Chris Klute (who’s battling a bad knee), Jermaine Taylor and Zarek Valentin, tidy and technical veteran midfielder Ned Grabavoy and former Crew forward Jack McInerney, who scored six MLS goals last season. Porter is still hoping to find an additional winger (Lucas Melano likely will succeed Wallace in the starting lineup), but he’s happy with the additions.
“Having some new guys come in, push the top 11 for their jobs, guys coming in who haven’t won a trophy, that keeps everyone on their toes. But we keep enough continuity to keep that consistency,” Porter said. “You want a mix of guys who haven’t done it with guys who have—enough turnover while a maintaining a piece of the past. You want the senior players, when they take the field, to rub off on some of the new players. This is the way we do things, and we do it this way because we win this way.”
Jewsbury said that what “rubs off” from the Timbers’ core players onto the newcomers won’t be championship pedigree, but rather “a belief in what you do every day.”
Porter has no patience for the narrative. He’s concerned only with what’s in his control and how to plan for the games and season ahead. The championship changes nothing.
“The media, through their questions, wants to shape the psychology of your players. There’s targets on our back. Other teams are going to want to beat us more. I never really agree with that,” Porter said. “It’s not like last year when teams played us, they didn’t want to beat us. It’s not like last year, we didn’t want to win. So the simple psychology of every game, and I build this mindset into the team, is that nothing in the past makes it any easier or harder for the next game. The only thing that determines whether we win each game is the 90 minute after the whistle blows—nothing on the periphery.”
He added, “You only lose hunger and only get complacent, you only lose confidence or feel pressure when you’re not prepared and when you’re thinking about the wrong things.”
Porter is hardly a killjoy or a curmudgeon. He said he enjoyed the MLS Cup triumph more than any moment in a career that's included three NCAA titles (two as an assistant at Indiana and one as the head coach at Akron). And he wants that feeling again. Porter keeps the memorabilia in his office to a minimum, but he does display two framed photos on the mantle. They feature his highest and lowest points as a coach.
The latter is represented by a picture of Porter on the bench managing the U.S. Under-23 team that was sensationally eliminated from Olympic qualifying in 2012. The former depicts the 2010 championship with Akron. That one will be replaced by a scene from last year’s MLS Cup in Columbus. Together, the photos reveal the bigger picture—what Porter called the “fine lines” between winning and losing and the importance of consistency, humility and process.
Those qualities put you in position and if the bounces go your way, then anything is possible. On Sunday, it all begins again. The past 40 years don’t matter–only the one ahead.
“Over time, over three years, you start to see the constant behavior that you find in winning clubs. You delve into that behavior—everybody from the players to management, fans, everything. It was kind of emotional and volatile here for a while and now we’ve become a club that’s healthy and consistent and you’re healthy and consistent, there’s more trust,” Porter said. “If we follow that same approach over the next 10 years, we’ll win more trophies.”