BEAVERTON, Ore. – Timbers 2 head coach Cameron Knowles remembers Josh Phillips’ presence emerging in the season’s earliest moments: when the T2 team was first assembling for the USL season; as they were splitting time between Portland’s Providence Park and Beaverton, Oregon’s adidas Timbers Training Center.
With both locations under construction, T2’s late winter, preseason sessions saw them dress in locker rooms downtown, get shuttled out to Beaverton, train and return to Goose Hollow for their time in the gym.
Knowles felt the need to apologize for the hassle.
“I went into the locker room and said, ‘Listen, sorry, lads. Just be patient,’” the first-year T2 head coach remembers. "'We’ve got a stadium under construction. We’ve got a practice facility under construction. Just be patient. It will all shake out. We’ll get back into the facility.’”
Phillips, a 26-year-old defender who, having signed with Portland this winter, was entering his fifth year as a professional, three of which had been spent in U.S. Soccer’s second tier, the United Soccer League. His time with Seattle Sounders’ U-23 team, FC Tucson and the Colorado Springs Switchbacks had offered him an intimate view of what a professional’s life is like beyond Major League Soccer, one that led him to scoff at Knowles’ apology.
“[Phillips] just started laughing,” Knowles remembers. “I said, ‘What are you laughing about?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve never had a locker room. I’ve never dressed in a locker room.’
“That was reality check, for a lot of us, that have been spoiled, here,” Knowles said, “and some of our players where the only professional environment they’ve known is this one … This what they know. They don’t know what the proper USL life is like.”
Phillips’ attitude set a tone early for 2018’s T2. As did that of Jimmy Mulligan, a 27-year-old fullback who had spent three of the previous four seasons with Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese at the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos. Nathan Smith, too – a 23-year-old who spent last year win the LA Galaxy organization – was added to the team, providing early guidance to a drastically rebuilt squad that had gone 3-23-6 the previous season.
“If we look back to the start of the season, guys that stepped in and played and immediately changed the culture of the team, guys like Josh Phillips, Jimmy Mulligan, Nathan Smith,” Knowles said, when asked about the season’s most important moments. “Those guys came in and played, the way they trained. They were here to win.
“Having those guys have been critical. I even said to Josh the other day, ‘You’re not playing, now, but your influence over this team is massive.’ Having those guys that are a little bit more experienced, a little bit older.”
This past weekend, T2 (16-11-4) clinched the first playoff berth in the team’s history. Sitting fifth in USL’s Western Conference with three games to play, the team still has an opportunity to earn a home playoff game. But the team’s rise hasn’t been a straight one since those formative stretches. These, the defining moments of 2018, are why the Timbers’ USL side will make its first appearance in the postseason.
The opening road trip
For all the team’s new veteran leadership, T2’s season got off to an ominous start, losing a close, 2-1 game in Tacoma, Washington, to a Seattle Sounders 2 team that didn’t project as a playoff contender. That the game was so close, and the shortcomings so frustrating, fostered an early feeling of deja vu. Was that, in the wake of a nightmarish season, how 2018 was going to be?
It was the first game of a five-game, season-opening road trip which, with the team’s first true venture from home, set the season off on the right foot.
“Early on in the season, as far as setting the tone for being a tough team on the road, (a key point) was probably our performance in Colorado,” eight days after opening the season against S2, Knowles remembers. “Going up to Seattle and losing a game that we probably shouldn’t have lost, and then going to Colorado and the guys really had to dig deep against that team – a team of men.”
The Seattle result had upped the pressure, bringing the specter of 2017 back into view. The idea of going to Colorado, playing on a tough surface, against a team of mature players suddenly felt daunting. That T2 responded with a 1-0 victory immediately put the new season back on course.
“That changed the tune a little bit and set the tone,” Knowles remembers, “that we are going to be a tough team to beat on the road, at home, wherever. We’re here to win games. That helped build that mentality in a difficult place to play.”
A 4-2 loss to a tough Real Monarchs SLC team followed, but even there, the response after a bad first half was good. And that response vaulted T2 to four points in the final two games of their opening road trip.
“We got ourselves back into the (Monarchs) game, and there were some encouraging things,” Knowles remembers. “Then we went to Oklahoma, Tulsa, created a lot of good chances, but probably should have won,” eventually drawing, 0-0. “We put together a really good performance against OKC (Energy, a 3-0 win on April 7) and again helped that belief that we can be a good team on the road. We can win games in this league on the road.”
Road living for first month of the season dug Portland’s MLS team a huge hole, seeing them return to the Rose City with a 0-3-2 record and doubts that the team’s new project was off on the right foot. Not so for T2. By the time the USL team made their April 18, home debut at Merlo Field, Knowles’ squad had taken seven points from five games, quelling any doubts that surfaced during their dour S2 opener.
The stabilizing middle months
If there is one word that serves as a through line for T2’s 2018, it’s stability.
After a challenging 2017, the Timbers needed to reinforce the environment at USL level, something 2017 manager Andrew Gregor (still on T2’s staff as an assistant coach), President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson and Director of Scouting and Recruitment Ned Grabavoy did this winter. They, according to Knowles, were responsible to identifying Phillips, Mulligan and Smith, knowing the patchwork of 2017’s inexperienced group contributed to the team’s downfall.
Phillips’ leadership, Mulligan’s example, and Smith’s quality were stabilizers, as was that first month of the season, but the stretch after the team returned home in April, once it had an idea of what its strengths would and would not be on the field, was also crucial.
That’s when Andre Lewis, one of the holdovers from 2017, started coming back into the starting XI, taking a place in central midfield next to Renzo Zambrano, allowing Eryk Williamson to move higher on the field. That’s when Foster Langsdorf began emerging as the team’s main goal scorer, whereas the team had been relying on another holdover, Augustine Williams, early in the season. That’s when Marvin Loría began emerging at the team’s most reliable way to break defenses.
That’s when the team’s identity was formed.
“Especially with this latter part of the season, we’ve had more consistency with the players we’ve been getting and the players we’ve been playing, which obviously helps,” Knowles said, speaking to the season’s biggest struggle – balancing T2’s goals with the first team’s needs. “That familiarity is key. So that’s been big with those guys and those guys performing, scoring goals.
“Guys like Andre and Renzo, in the middle of the park, taking control of game. Guys like Marvin Loría constantly being a threat. And then the consistency across the back, too, for the most part.”
Kendall McIntosh was an anchor in goal. In front of him, Modou Jadama became a constant in central defense, usually next to either Roy Miller or Bill Tuiloma. Mulligan and Smith combined with Marco Farfan to give the team something predictable wide. As the team’s attacking and midfield identities built, so did the cohesion at the back.
Over the past month, though, that cohesion has had to give way to something else. Miller picked up an injury, while first-team commitments for Farfan, Jadama and Tuiloma have offered Knowles less time for their use. But as players like Smith, Arturo Diz Pe and Max Ornstil have stepped up, another virtue of 2018’s growth has been revealed.
“We’ve got guy that have settled into roles that now, when they step in, they feel like it’s their team, as well,” Knowles explains. “Because they’ve played a lot of games. It’s not just that they’re doing someone’s job from a week or two. We’ve got this buy-in from everyone. They have ownership over this team, the direction that it’s going to be in.”
Reinforcing the finish
A four-match losing streak that ended in the middle of July briefly cast T2 out of the Western Conference’s playoff picture. Since, T2 has gone 8-3-2, leveraging the stability they built before their mid-year downturn to reinforce their finish.
A major part of that finish, though, was making Portland a place opponents should fear. As both the Timbers and Thorns FC have found during their existences, Portland can almost serve as a reprieve for visiting players – an exciting place to make memories by beating your hosts.
Coming into August, T2 was only 5-6-0 at home. They had given up 27 goals in 11 home games and given USL the impression that memories could be made in Portland.
“When we came back, more recently, for that five-game home stretch,” Knowles recalls, still identifying the season’s key stretches, “and we hadn’t been good at home, and we knew it was going to be critical.
“We knew that teams were coming in thinking they would beat us. And we had to change that.”
In some ways, it was the season’s second major challenge, the type of task that tells a staff how players might respond come the no-excuses time of a postseason calendar. The first challenge was at the start, when hints of 2017 leaking through the opening Seattle loss. After a long period of building, though, the team needed to draw another line.
The response: Four wins in five games; one loss to the Western Conference leaders (by one goal, on Aug. 28); outscoring their guests 13-5 over a crucial, closing months.
“We had to earn the respect of the opponent coming into Portland,” Knowles said. “We had created a narrative, if you will, that teams could hang their hats on, say, ‘listen, they’ve lost this many games, at home. We can come in. We can get points, here.’ We needed to change that.”
T2 will close 2018’s home calendar at Merlo Field on Oct. 3 against Reno 1868 FC, and if all goes right before that, the team’s next-to-last game of the regular season, a home playoff game will still be in focus. But whether the team’s Western Conference quarterfinal ends up in Portland or afar, the team is going to be in historic place for the club: those quarterfinals.