Season Begins With High Expectations for Timbers

Philadelphia visits to kick off the 2014 MLS campaign
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, March 07, 2014

Taylor Fugate Photography - Portland Timbers, MLS

The season opener for the Portland Timbers is Saturday night, and to say that this feels a lot different than last year’s opener might be an understatement.

The anticipation is higher, the expectations are much greater and consequences of failure could be much bigger. And the Timbers wouldn’t have it any other way.

Just like last year, the Timbers open up with 2 straight at Providence Park against Eastern Conference clubs. On Saturday, it’s the Philadelphia Union in the opener, and then Mike Magee and the Chicago Fire are in Portland on March 16. Maybe not as strong of an opposition 1-2 as last year, when it was New York and Montreal, but maybe a better chance at getting out with 2 wins.

Maybe that should read “expected to get 2 wins”, because that’s where the expectations are. Portland is expected to be one of the top clubs in MLS, possibly a contender for the MLS Cup. Starting the season with anything less than 6 points might be considered a disappointment.

Last year, no one knew what the Timbers would be like under Caleb Porter. The come-from-behind draw with Red Bull New York and the loss to the Montreal Impact left fans wondering if things really had changed. Then Portland snagged 2 road draws at Seattle and Colorado, starting what became a 15-match unbeaten streak that lasted until July. By then, what was being expected from the Timbers had drastically shifted, from hoping to be in the playoff hunt to dreaming about a Supporters’ Shield run.

The giant steps taken in 2013 means that the goals now come in single steps this year. One step past Portland’s playoff finish last season is an appearance in the MLS Cup Final. One step beyond last year’s US Open Cup finish is the being in the cup final, and possibly hosting it. While they are single steps in theory, they are massive when it comes to the club. But that’s the expectations, that the Timbers are ready to take those final steps.

There’s also the new experience of continental play, as Portland starts the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League in August. Those 4 matches will test the depth of the Timbers, as there will be the expectation that they can advance out of their group and go into the knockout stages in early 2015. Those will also come after any deep run in the US Open Cup, meaning plenty of mid-week matches for Portland this year.

But for the Timbers to meet those expectations, numerous things need to happen. Getting the newcomers meshed in to the club has already been worked, with Gastón Fernández, Norberto Paparatto, Steve Zakuani, Schillo Tshuma and Jorge Villafaña learning Porter’s system and getting adjusted to their new teammates.

Diego Valeri is coming back from injury, which is vital for the Timbers not only on the field, but helping his Argentine teammates become more comfortable living in Portland. Zakuani has steadily made progress from his injuries, and has been working with Valeri during training sessions during the preseason.

The big question, of course, is whether the Timbers can live up to these expectations. There is currently an air of confidence in Portland, as Porter and his staff believe they are ready for the season and ready to live up to the predictions of success.

But there are a few things to consider if the Timbers are to have a big season in 2014. Staying away from injury is big, of course, especially in the back. If Donovan Ricketts stays healthy and the back 4 stays consistent, that will help greatly. Once Rodney Wallace is back from his knee injury, that will help what’s already a very deep group in the midfield.

One aspect that the Timbers can’t repeat is the element of surprise. No one expected what the Timbers did in 2013, especially the 15-match unbeaten run. There were struggles in the second half of the season, with injuries and schedule congestion taking their toll. Clubs have probably looked at what Real Salt Lake did to frustrate the Timbers (RSL didn’t lose to Portland in 6 matches in 2013, including winning both legs of their Western Conference Final matchup) and hope to do the same, in some manner.

But Porter knows that, and will be adjusting accordingly. That Philadelphia, the first opponent of the season, hasn’t beaten Portland in 4 matches (2 Timbers wins in Portland and 2 scoreless draws at PPL Park) bodes well for the Timbers. But with Maurice Edu now anchoring the midfield, the Union will be a different team, and a different challenge, than they have been in the past.

Then again, these Timbers are different from the past, as well. The level of talent, the expectation of success, the knowledge that comes from the 2013 season – it’s a big change from MLS seasons past in the Rose City.

Whether those add up to a 2014 greater than the year before will be known over the next 7 months. It all begins on Saturday night.

Buckle up. This could be a ride to remember.

NEXT UP: March 8 – Portland Timbers vs. Philadelphia Union, Providence Park, Portland, Ore. 10:30 p.m. EST, ROOT Sports NW, MLS Live.

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
RAY'S SPONSORS