PORTLAND, Ore. – Let the Caleb Porter era begin.
After a nearly nine-month wait since the former MLS player who built the University of Akron into a powerhouse was tabbed for his first professional head coaching job, Porter will finally field a team with points on the line. His Portland Timbers will play host to the New York Red Bulls on Sunday at JELD-WEN Field in a meeting of clubs with one goal on their minds: the MLS Cup playoffs (4:30pm PT, ESPN2, 750 The Game / La Pantera 940).
“I think they’re hungry,” Porter said after his side’s final full training session Friday at JELD-WEN Field. “There’s a bit of an edge to the group, a bit of a chip. I saw that early in the week, these guys are ready to play a game that means something. And yet they look confident, so I think they’re in the right zone.”
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Coinciding with Porter’s arrival has been a complete overhaul of the team that has mostly disappointed since joining MLS in 2011.
Veteran midfielder Jack Jewsbury, who remains as club captain, has turned over his on-field captaincy to newly acquired midfielder Will Johnson. The Timbers have changed out high-profile designated players, swapping striker Kris Boyd after one failed season for Argentinian attacking midfielder Diego Valeri.
Their starting back line on Sunday will be entirely new aside from second-year center back Andrew Jean-Baptiste, who also started last year’s season opener but rarely played over the course of the season.
In all, Portland will feature six newcomers to start the season. And it has all added up to another year of expectation in the Rose City.
“We want to be a realistic contender, we want to be a team that’s in the playoffs and a team that’s in the mix in the end,” Porter said. “So I think these guys are hungry. They have a lot to prove, they have a lot to prove yet in this league.”
Newly minted team captain Johnson said this week has indeed brought with it a more intense mindset.
“It’s been a little tenser than it has been the weeks before, obviously everyone is trying to get on the field, everybody is trying to compete against one another and put their best foot forward,” said Johnson, the former Real Salt Lake fixture. “It’s kind of the build up, it’s what you would expect, it’s opening day, it’s always fun, but for this club especially I think there’s added emphasis just because we’re Portland.”
Porter said supporters can expect something that has gone lacking in previous years, an organized, cohesive group that knows just what their identity is. His reputation for a possession, attacking style already having manifested during the preseason.
“You’re going to hopefully see a team that’s organized, a team that knows what they’re about, knows their identity, has been prepared to win this game,” he said. “You’re going to see a proactive team, a team that’s going to be on their front foot, a team that’s going to hopefully give New York some problems to the point that they have to handle us a little bit.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.