2013 in Review: Retooled Portland Timbers take a giant step forward under Caleb Porter
Over the next two weeks, MLSsoccer.com will take a look back at the 2013 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with D.C. United and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2013 record: 14-5-15 (57 points); 54 GF / 33 GA (+21 GD)
It was a year of superlatives for the Portland Timbers in 2013, and one that supporters aren’t soon likely to forget. The Timbers not only burst into postseason relevancy for the first time in MLS, making their playoff debut in their third season in the league, but they did it in impressive fashion, competing for the Supporters’ Shield until the final week, finishing first in the Western Conference and just missing out on an MLS Cup berth.
First-year head coach Caleb Porter, making his debut in professional coaching after lofty success at the college ranks, proved to be a revelation and was rewarded with Coach of the Year honors.
The Timbers' success – highlighted by a midseason franchise-record 15-game unbeaten streak and appearance in the Western Conference Championship – arrived somewhat unexpectedly due to the fact that the Timbers underwent a near-complete roster overhaul in the offseason. But nearly every move was a knockout, with three newcomers selected to the league’s Best XI, most notably Newcomer of the Year Diego Valeri.
Best Moment of the Year
The Timbers' best moment of the year is very likely the best moment in franchise history: beating bitter rivals the Seattle Sounders in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinals in front of their loyal supporters at JELD-WEN Field on Nov. 7.
Aside from the satisfaction of vanquishing their rivals, whose success had overshadowed Portland since they joined the league in 2011, it also solidified Portland’s regular-season success and claim as one of the top teams in the league. The Timbers came into the game with a 2-1 lead in the aggregate and flew out to a 3-0 lead before securing the 5-3 aggregate win, sending an already raucous home crowd into a frenzy that ended with a celebration in the Timbers Army section that lasted well after the final whistle.
Worst Moment of the Year
For a team that lost just five times during the regular season, tops in the league, there weren’t many. But the first leg of the Western Conference Championship against Real Salt Lake certainly heads that shortlist. After a Will Johnson free-kick goal staked Portland to an early 1-0 lead in the Nov. 10 game at Rio Tinto Stadium, things went downhill.
Salt Lake scored four unanswered goals before a stoppage-time goal by Frederic Piquionne provided some late hope in the 4-2 loss. The deficite though proved to be too much for the daunting return home leg, which ended with RSL earning a trip to the MLS Cup after a 1-0 victory in Portland.
It didn’t take long for Valeri to endear himself to Portland fans. In the first game of the year, a wild 3-3 draw with the New York Red Bulls on March 3, Valeri opened the scoring with a clever, juggling strike that would be the harbinger of things to come from the creative midfielder.
He took a pass from Kalif Alhassan, used one juggle off his chest to bisect two defenders and fired a right-footed shot inside the far-right post. The goal was good enough for second place in the MLS Goal of the Year voting.
Valeri takes home this honor, as well, to no surprise. A league MVP candidate to many, the 27-year-old Argentinean was one of only two players in the league to record double-digit goal and assist totals, the other being LA Galaxy’s Robbie Keane. His 13 assists led the league and his 10 goals were tops on the team. More importantly, his playmaking ability was the catalyst behind Portland’s balanced scoring attack, with three players scoring nine goals and one with seven.
What’s more, his value was exemplified when he was hampered by a late-season injury and the Timbers proved far less potent without him. That was highlighted in their 4-0 win over Toronto on Sept. 7 when, with Portland holding onto a 1-0 lead late in the game, Valeri subbed on and immediately assisted on one goal and scored another to blow the game open.
Was it the thorough scouting that led to Valeri coming to the Rose City? Or the chance Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson took on trading for future captain Will Johnson’s leadership qualities? Too easy. The best move proved to be the toughest, which actually occurred in 2012 but was a huge reason for success in 2013: shipping goalkeeper Troy Perkins to Montreal for veteran Donovan Ricketts, Porter’s first move as head coach. In the face of claims that Ricketts’ best days were behind him, the big Jamaican international turned in perhaps his best season of a laudable career that led to his second MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award.
“I’m not bothered by aesthetics or style. Everybody wants to make it into that. I’m about winning games. Simple. I could care less how it looks.” – Porter early in the season, addressing his style of play.
1. Outside penetration: One of the first needs cited by the Timbers front office was a player who could get behind the defense on the wings, especially the left wing, to free the middle for Portland’s exceptional playmakers. That was addressed when Portland picked former Sounders attacker Steve Zakuani with the No. 2 pick of the Re-Entry Draft. A shot across the bow to rival Seattle and yet another dangerous piece for Porter to tinker with.
2. Center back: Portland’s defense was their most inconsistent aspect of a season with very few negatives. Center back was particular auspicious thanks to injuries and inexperience, leading to the team parting ways with second-year defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste and veteran David Horst (who missed most of the year with a knee injury). Porter seemed settled on the pairing of Pa Modou Kah (pictured at right) and Futty Danso at season’s end who provided veteran leadership and stability, but they’ll need depth.
3. Striker: While the Timbers have made an offer to Ryan Johnson who seems intent on heading to Europe, they’re still negotiating with EPL veteran Piquionne, leaving them with youngsters Maximiliano Urruti and Jose Valencia as the only target forwards on the roster. Wilkinson also expressed a desire to see more production from that position.