Merritt Paulson, the owner of Portland Timbers, saw a dream of taking timbers to the triumph in MLS. But the dream almost shattered when he walked into the media conference room (Providence Park) to declare that the first MLS head coach, John Spencer has been fired by the club back on July 9, 2012. In their inaugural MSL Season (2011) many playoffs were missed and the struggle was endless in the first half of 2012. There was a time when it was pretty obvious that the team need to re-evaluate the trajectory of the club to stand where Paulson wants them since he campaigned to introduce MSL to Portland.
The coaching change was a necessary first step for the Timbers as they began to plot a new course toward long-term success, but it was only the beginning of a complete overhaul for the organization.
“There was a lot of reflection,” said Gavin Wilkinson, Timbers general manager and president of soccer. “It was reflecting on the last two years, looking at all the negatives of 2011 and 2012, putting those together and saying, ‘How are we going to solve these things, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes?’ We found that by documenting a lot of them, by creating a performance plan, by creating clear objectives to eliminate some of the mistakes, we were able to move forward.”
Over the final months of 2012, the Timbers worked diligently to develop a more specific philosophy and performance plan, outlining everything from how the club would play in possession and out of possession to what specific metrics they would use to evaluate their success in each area of the field and as a collective unit. The organization also created more in-depth player profiles and spending guidelines at each position to guide their scouting as they tried to put together a more well-rounded and deeper roster.
It was a turning point for Portland. With new head coach Caleb Porter at the helm, the Timbers overhauled their roster and changed their style of play following the 2012 season before going on to finish first in the Western Conference in 2013. Over the last six seasons, the Timbers have developed into a perennial contender, finally hoisting their first MLS Cup in 2015.
This year, the Timbers finished fifth in the West before upsetting FC Dallas in the knockout round of the playoffs and ousting the Seattle Sounders in an epic Western Conference semifinal series. Portland is now preparing to face Sporting Kansas City in its third Western Conference Championship series in just six years. The Timbers are one of just three MLS teams that has made it to the conference championship round three times over the last six seasons.
“Three Western Conference finals, winning the West twice in the regular season, an MLS Cup,” Wilkinson said. “It’s starting to paint a picture of a club that goes about things the right way.”
But while Portland is well-respected throughout MLS for its incredible fan support, the Timbers are still often viewed as an underdog on the field.
The club certainly hasn’t had the regular season consistency of some teams, such as the New York Red Bulls, who set an MLS regular season record with 71 points in 2018. Portland also doesn’t have the star power of certain big-market clubs, such as the LA Galaxy, who missed playoffs this year, or LAFC, who were eliminated in the knockout round. Only one of four MLSsoccer.com analysts picked the Timbers to advance to the Western Conference Championship series this season and none picked Portland to win MLS Cup. The Timbers still have just an eight percent chance of winning MLS Cup this season, according to statistical website FiveThirtyEight.
“That’s good if they want to doubt us. We’ll take that,” Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala said. “We don’t really listen to what people say about us. We just focus on our work. If they want to say we’re underdogs, that’s fine. That won’t change the way we approach games and the way we play.”
The Timbers have had notable down seasons over the last six years, which may be why they aren’t always thought of as a clear contender. Portland couldn’t overcome a lack of depth as it struggled to navigate a schedule that included CONCACAF Champions League and missed playoffs by one point in 2014. When the club followed up that disappointing season with a slow start in 2015, fans grew so frustrated that they unfurled a banner with the words, “Same as it ever was,” sitting below a red line. The Timbers proved their critics wrong as they went on to win the 2015 MLS Cup.
But Portland struggled once again in 2016 as they were forced to part ways with a few key players in order to navigate the salary cap while paying contract bonuses associated with the 2015 MLS Cup win. The addition of more resources in MLS has enabled MLS Cup-winning clubs to keep their rosters more intact over the last few years, but those resources weren’t available in 2016 as a weakened Timbers squad missed playoffs by two points.
“It was a learning process for the club,” Wilkinson said. “To be able to recoup and rebound and look at the team and rebuild it for 2017 and follow that up with 2018, hopefully it does show an evolution of the club.”
The Timbers have otherwise excelled over the last six seasons. Porter won the 2013 MLS Coach of the Year Award after the club finished first in the Western Conference. He went on to lead the group to another first-place finish in the West and an MLS Cup during his five years with the Timbers.
Portland made three of its biggest MLS era signings between 2013-14 as well. Ahead of the 2013 season, the Timbers brought in Argentine midfielder Diego Valeri as a Designated Player. Valeri now has a club-record 68 goals and 65 assists over 180 career appearances for the Timbers. A year and a half after signing Valeri, the Timbers made two more huge signings by bringing in forward Fanendo Adi and defender Liam Ridgewell. Adi finished his Timbers career with 52 goals in 102 starts, while Ridgewell has consistently been Portland’s best defender when he is on the field.
“I remember when I sat down with Caleb and Merritt and Gavin, their plan was to put this team on the map, to put this city on the map and make sure we made strides every single year,” Ridgewell said. “I think that’s probably a reason they brought me in, to try to bring that Premier League experience over here, to make sure that we kept moving forward, to make sure that every single year we were striving to go win an MLS Cup.”
After finishing first in the Western Conference in 2017, the Timbers hired Giovanni Savarese as their new head coach this season. It proved to be a smart hire. Savarese brought his own philosophy and style to the club and the players came together to implement his vision. The Timbers tied a club record with a 15-game unbeaten streak this year before earning a playoff berth for the second consecutive season, a first for the club.
“I knew the culture of the club,” said Savarese about his decision to join the Timbers. “Things are done correctly inside the club. The fans are incredible. The roster was a roster that I felt that I could work with. From the beginning, I felt lucky to be part of this organization.”
The Timbers have already accomplished quite a lot this season by earning a spot in the Western Conference Championship series. But no matter what happens this year, Wilkinson said the organization already has a growing list of things they want to tackle in the offseason – from working to get better on the field to making improvements to key areas off the field, such as continuing to grow their sports science department.
And the club certainly won’t be satisfied if their season ends with a loss to Kansas City in the Western Conference Championship. The Timbers have come a long way since 2012, and they don’t want to stop here.
“If we lose to Kansas City, it’s a failed season, it’s still something we haven’t accomplished,” Ridgewell said. “To get to MLS Cup again and go and win it would be amazing, and it would be another stride in making this team, making this organization even better.”