By Ridge Mahoney
Before his second season in charge of Portland kicked off, Timbers head coach Caleb Porter was willing and able to disclose the key to matching that sensational first year.
“One of our mantras is keep your highs low and your lows high, keep a steady hand,” says Porter, under whose leadership the Timbers won the Western Conference title, lost a league-low five games, and dispatched Northwest rival Seattle in the conference semifinals. “That’s easier said than done. Our club hadn’t had that type of consistency, so the fact we were able to do that in Year 1 was for me the thing I was most proud of.”
After a rocky start of just two points in the first three games of 2013, unbeaten streaks of 15 and eight games propelled Portland to a 15-5-14 record. It just so happens that the 2014 season has started the same way – two ties and a loss in three games – and tension among the fan base is juicing up the Internet.
An additional dose of angst has been fed to the fans for this week’s game at FC Dallas; goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts will sit out the match after incurring a red card giving away the first of two penalty kicks in a 2-0 loss to Colorado last Saturday. His replacement, Andrew Weber, who also gave away a PK, will start against FCD and most likely next week when the Sounders come to Providence Park just a few months removed from their playoff elimination. The MLS Disciplinary Committee has tacked on an additional game to Ricketts’ suspension for crashing into Deshorn Brown, judging it to be serious foul play as well as denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity.
Briefly losing a team leader and the 2013 Goalkeeper of the Year is one of those obstacles that Porter constantly reminds his team are part of the process. “It’s not coming easy, but this locker room is a tight locker room,” Porter said in his postgame comments after the Colorado loss. “They’re not happy, but they’re not questioning themselves. I believe in them, they believe in themselves and we’ll figure it out.”
Swapping out Ricketts is just another in a series of adjustments made by Porter as he remodels the surprise team of 2013. When Porter speaks of consistency, he refers to more than a steady accumulation of points. He doesn’t want to toggle back and forth between different systems and formations, depending on whether he’s playing at home or on the road. They stick to their principles as much as possible.
“Some teams will play differently on the road than at home,” says Porter, who plans on using a 4-2-3-1 formation most of the time this season. “We don’t, we play the same. If you follow a game-by-game process of preparation and you’re preparing the same way, that breeds consistent performance and with consistent performance you get consistent results.
To that end, he’s added a few key pieces, including Argentines Gaston Fernandez and Norberto Paparatto. Fernandez scored a goal in each of the Timbers’ first two games, 1-1 ties with Philadelphia and Chicago. Paparatto started the first two games and gave away a penalty kick against the Fire yet is being counted by Porter to add some height on set plays and direct the back line as he did for seven seasons with Tigre in his native country. He sat out the 2-0 loss in Colorado. Former Sounder Steve Zakuani is trying to win a regular slot on the wing. He came on as a sub in the first two games and against the Rapids played the first 65 minutes in his first start.
Only Fernandez has scored in the first three games, and thus fans are nervous that the loss of burly striker Ryan Johnson -- who tied with Will Johnson and Darlington Nagbe for second on the team last year with nine goals -- will deprive the attack of a target player. Rather than re-sign, Johnson looked abroad, and eventually signed a deal to play in China, and there’s a sense that without him as a focal point, playmaker Diego Valeri (10 goals, 13 assists last year) is still adjusting.
“That was his decision,” says Porter of Johnson, who earned $144,704 last season and has more than doubled that salary. “He told us even a little bit before the end of the year and he let us know pretty early he was probably going to go overseas. We knew that, he knew that, we were all on the same page. We gave him the bonafide offer and he had told us it wasn’t going to be enough. Frankly, we understand. He’s in China making significantly more money than we could offer him.”
Masterminding Portland’s remarkable turnaround -- it improved by 23 points from 2012 to 2013 -- earned Porter Coach of the Year honors. The Timbers were third in goals scored (47) and second in goals-allowed (33). The hated Sounders were vanquished before Portland came up short in the conference finals against Real Salt Lake.
The new season feels much the same. Packed houses at Providence Park regularly feature a large banner that reads “PORTERLAND” and the run of sellouts rolls on. Still, there’s much to do. He wants more wins of course, especially at the climax.
“We were top three in goals scored and goals against and we finished top-four in every competition,” Porter says. “In one year, we earned the right to be considered a contender and one of the better teams in MLS. Now moving into Year 2, we’ve got to do it again. In a short amount of time, we built an experienced team that reached the playoffs and won a playoff series. I’m hoping we have a similar year but the ending’s better.”