When the Portland Timbers’ season starts on March 3, the club becomes just one more group of people who want to exorcise 2016 for various reasons.
“I’m tired of talking about last year,” says Caleb Porter, the team’s fifth-year manager. “You can’t turn the page until that first game.”
But just to recap: Portland won the Major League Soccer championship in 2015. In 2016—hampered by injuries to players like defenders Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell and creative midfielder Diego Valeri—the Timbers failed even to make the league playoffs. Most MLS teams make the playoffs. Not good.
As the preseason ramped up, Porter reflected on both past and prologue.
Soccer standings award three points for winning a match, one for a draw. The Timbers missed the playoffs by two points. “One more win, and we would have been in,” Porter says. He notes that all those injuries forced many nonstarters to sink or swim—and, particularly away from the raucous base of Providence Park, many sank.
“We can’t be that broken if we won 12 games at home,” Porter says. “We played aggressively—we decided the game. Our identity on the road was not as clear.” (True: the Timbers did not win a single road game in the 2016 season.) Depth—and fostering hot competition for every starting role—is a key focus of Porter’s preseason planning.
Several key players departed after 2015. And, Porter says, psychology played a role. “We probably suffered from 5 percent complacency,” he says. “And the opponent probably had 10 percent more hunger to beat us.”
Speaking of motivation, how’s this? In a final 2016 face-stab, the MLS Cup went to the Seattle Sounders, the Timbers’ eternal nemesis to the north. On one hand, Porter doesn’t want to make a huge deal of it: “You have to look at it as one-off.” On the other, the boss has been thinking about what matters. “In 20 years, no one remembers if you made the playoffs,” Porter says. “They remember trophies.”
Porter expresses faith in returning stalwarts like Valeri and midfield destroyer Diego Chara. “We won an MLS Cup. We’ve got a good squad. In a lot of games last year, those core players weren’t in the lineup,” he says. “You would hope that would be enough to get one more win, or a lot more than that.”