Portland Timbers not satisfied with just turning it around

Despite season statistical turnaround, team knows work remains in the playoffs

PORTLAND, Ore. – There really is no comparison.

One need not look far past the Western Conference table to see that the 2013 Portland Timbers far outperformed the 2012 Timbers. And not surprisingly, that complete reversal goes far beyond just wins, losses and ties.

This year’s Timbers – who enter their first-ever MLS Cup Playoffs on Saturday as the top seed in the West against rival Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the Conference Semifinals at CenturyLink Field (7 pm PT; NBCSN, 750 The Game / La Pantera 940) – were far better, using just about every statistical matrix as evidence.

Portland’s improvement in goal differential, alone, going from minus-22 last year to plus-21 this year, the biggest turnaround in league history, is a broad indicator of how far the Timbers have come under first-year head coach Caleb Porter.

But for Porter, using last year’s team as a benchmark on just what the team has accomplished was never part of his plan.

“Last year was not a good measuring stick,” Porter told MLSsoccer.com. “And when I took over last year, I didn’t want to just do better than last year, I wanted to build a club that could compete and achieve the same things that the other top clubs were. … I put the bar immediately where the top teams were in terms of their trends.”

And with the regular season in the books, that’s exactly what Porter has achieved. Portland’s 15-game unbeaten streak during the first-half of the regular season was not only a franchise best; it’s the longest unbeaten streak by a first-year head coach in league history.

The Timbers' five league losses are tied for the fewest in a 34-game season, equaling the 2011 Galaxy’s total.

Portland set an MLS record with four different players – midfielders Will Johnson and Diego Valeri and forwards Ryan Johnson and Darlington Nagbe – to record nine or more goals in a single season.

And that’s just scratching the surface of the team’s statistical superlatives.

“We’ve been very consistent this year in what we’ve done and that’s why we’re at the top of the conference,” said Timbers club captain Jack Jewsbury, who was around for Portland’s first two MLS seasons. “Everybody has a role and there’s no reason to go above and beyond what you’re asked to do. Know you’re role and do it very well, and I think that’s why we’ve been so good.”

When asked what statistical category Porter looks at to mark a successful season, he instead focuses on broader terms.

“We’re in the business of winning games,” Porter said. “As a coach, you want to have a philosophy or a blueprint of how you put your team together that will increase your chance of winning games. That’s the main reason we play the way we play because I think it increases your chances of winning.”

It’s the message he’s kept since the early days of the season when Porter installed the Timbers' high-pressure, balanced and possession-orientated style where his team is “deciding” what happens in the game. It’s a system that has provided something he feels will not only lead to success in the impending playoffs but years down the road. And that’s “consistency,” he said.

“You want to be a club that’s in every game, not losing games 3-0, 4-0, 5-0,” he said. “For me, that’s probably the most pleasing thing of the entire year in every stat, is just our consistency game in and game out and our consistency in getting points and not getting beat over the entire season.”

The Timbers’ home record of 11-1-5 is the league’s best. And on the road, Porter’s group has nabbed points in 13 of their 17 matches. The Timbers are in the top three in the league in goals scored (54) and goals allowed (33).

“The key is the balance,” Porter said.

And here’s where all the numbers apply to something tangible, something that will result in a “trophy being raised” at the end of the season, Porter said.

All of it has meant that the Timbers have only lost two games in a row once this season. And only one of their five losses was by more than one goal – a 4-2 defeat Aug. 30 when the Timbers had a player sent off right before halftime, which also happens to be their last defeat.

“For me, the next step is raising a trophy and being, not just one of the better teams, but the best team,” Porter said. “We haven’t earned that right yet. We’ve certainly earned the right in proving that we’re in the mix and that we’re one of the better teams in the league, but we haven’t yet proven we’re the best team.”

That mission starts Saturday.

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.