Building a foundation: Portland Timbers' success comes from record-breaking depth
PORTLAND, Ore. – When Will Johnson scored his eighth goal of the season last weekend against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Portland Timbers became the second team in MLS history to have four players score eight or more goals in a season.
But the team captain’s strike did much more than that.
It reaffirmed an emerging organizational philosophy – born both out of previous failures and the mind of first-year head coach Caleb Porter – that building a team with multiple weapons in the attacking third, without neglecting depth throughout the lineup, is a recipe that will transform the Timbers into a winning franchise.
“It’s the way we’ve set our team up," Porter told MLSsoccer.com. "We’re a team in every sense of the word, we share the ball, we play a team game, we press as a team, we possess as a team.”
It may seem obvious, but league history says it’s easier said than done.
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And this Sunday’s Cascadia clash at JELD-WEN Field between the Timbers and Seattle Sounders – who have splurged on several big names this year but have struggled in other areas, especially recently – will offer a contrast in philosophies (9 pm ET; ESPN).
So how have the Timbers built a team with such impressive balance just one year removed from their first two failed seasons in the league?
Three of their top four goalscorers – Darlington Nagbe (9), Johnson (8) and Diego Valeri (8) – are all having career years (it is Valeri’s first in MLS) while Ryan Johnson (8) is enjoying his best season since an 11-goal haul with San Jose in 2009. But they also represent one overarching theme: value.
That starts with Valeri – arguably Portland’s most valuable acquisition in the attacking midfielder role crucial to Porter’s 4-3-3 formation – who was a relative unknown for a Designated Player. And, most importantly, the Argentinean represented a less expensive option than Portland’s previous DP, striker Kris Boyd, the Scottish Premier League’s all-time leading scorer who struggled to find his form in the Rose City.
That allowed the Timbers to spread the wealth, so to speak.
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Portland started the rebuilding campaign early in the offseason when they added Will Johnson from Real Salt Lake and left back Michael Harrington, who leads Portland in minutes played, from Sporting Kansas City – both proven, hard-working players from successful organizations who weren’t getting the opportunities they wanted with their previous clubs. Then in came Ryan Johnson, a journeyman but proven forward, from Toronto.
After that, Portland general manager Gavin Wilkson explained that the team went about building depth from the middle out, starting with Will Johnson, Valeri and holdover Diego Chara.
"We felt that was a safer way to proceed, to be honest," Wilkinson said.
Then it fell to Porter to put it all together on the field, and his high-pressure attacking philosophy has helped develop a number of different goal scorers. But he said it’s also about putting players in the right situation to succeed.
For example, Portland’s offense last season had run primarily through Nagbe, who was only in his second year in the league at the time. Porter shifted that responsibility to the veteran Valeri.
Even forward Rodney Wallace, who is on the verge of giving the Timbers five players with eight goals -- he's currently tallied six times -- was moved from defender to the left side of the attack.
“I always kind of saw him as more of an attacking player than a defensive player,” said Porter, who first noticed Wallace when he was considering taking the D.C. United job, where the Costa Rican international played at the time. “That’s a big thing with any player, if you put them in the right spot they come to life."
Another evolution in the club’s thinking, that Wilkinson said came from previous failures, is their player evaluation process.
The front office triumvirate of Wilkinson, Porter and owner/president Merritt Paulson have fostered open communication on the scouting process. It has come to involve not only seeing players play in person – for example Porter and Wilkinson both traveling to Argentina to see Valeri play – but also extensive personality evaluation.
“We really keep as a common thread in all of our players, that no matter how talented they are we want them to be good professionals and have good character and be good people,” Porter said. “... We feel like we have to be very thorough, methodical and cerebral in our additions and subtractions, I think every team does.”
“It came back to revisiting what the culture of Portland is about,” Wilkinson added.
It’s all led to one of the league’s highest scoring teams. But it’s also meant that on the list of players having career years are those in the defensive third, too, highlighted by goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts’ renaissance between the sticks. Portland also happens to be one of the league’s best defensive teams, as well.
“We’ve got guys who when they’re number is called they come in and do a great job,” said 11-year MLS veteran and staring right back Jack Jewsbury, who was the team captain for Portland’s first two disappointing seasons and one of the few holdovers from those years. “The depth on this team is probably the best that I’ve ever been a part of.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.