Eleven months ago, the Portland Timbers were celebrating their first-ever Major League Soccer championship. They had beaten the Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup Final in an impressive showing, capping off the club’s best MLS season in the best way possible.
On Sunday, the MLS regular season ended, and the Timbers failed to make the playoffs. Their fate was sealed with an embarrassing 4-1 defeat to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Portland’s precipitous fall from grace caught many fans and observers off guard, since before the season many had penciled them in for another challenge for the top spot in the American game. Many Timbers fans are scratching their heads wondering what went wrong — and while there’s plenty of blame to go around, things aren’t entirely bleak for the Portland Timbers’ future.
Where Caleb Porter screwed up
The most obvious reason for Portland’s failure to make the playoffs is also perhaps their most stunning statistic: they failed to win even one match on the road in MLS play this season. In 17 road matches, they lost 11 times and drew six — a huge red flag that something just wasn’t working tactically for the Timbers this season. Many teams struggle on the road, but when you can’t figure out how to win once away from home, something is wrong with the system, and that falls on the shoulders of manager Caleb Porter.
Porter’s second big gaffe is how long he tried to stick with Lucas Melano as a key figure in his attack. The young Argentine attacker is highly skilled, that can’t be questioned, but no matter where Porter plugged Melano into his attack or what role he was given, things just didn’t work for him on the pitch. That's normal -- talented players struggle all the time -- but most managers find a plan B instead of handing 27 starts to a struggling player.
Many fans will also accuse Porter of over-tinkering with his rotation, especially in defense — though a bad spate of injuries at the back forced his hand to some extent. The most obvious flaw in Porter’s rotation was actually in attack, though, with Fanendo Adi strangely benched in important matches against Cascadia rivals or major playoff positioning games later in the year.
That was in spite of Adi scoring 16 goals this season, tied with Dom Dwyer of Sporting Kansas City for best in the Western Conference. If Porter had more faith in his top goalscorer, there were numerous matches that Portland narrowly lost or drew that they could have salvaged more points from with that extra bit of firepower up top.
Where Gavin Wilkinson screwed up
Of course, Porter isn’t the only major part of the Timbers’ organization who has egg on his face after this season. General manager Gavin Wilkinson shares plenty of blame, as well. To begin, there was a wildly uneven winter transfer window that saw his team take several major loses without adequate replacements.
Jorge Villafaña was the biggest hole left in the roster. Left back was a constant problem position for the Timbers this year, but the losses of Rodney Wallace, Will Johnson, and Max Urruti were inadequately addressed, as well — unless you include the addition of Lucas Melano, who we already know was a problem of his own for the Timbers this past season.
The biggest issue is that, despite all the salary and cap room that opened up for the Timbers by their moves, including netting a healthy transfer fee for Villafaña, they failed to add a star player or someone who could heavily influence the team. Instead, they added a number of MLS journeymen, the likes of Ned Grabavoy, Jack McInerney, Darren Mattocks, Jermaine Taylor, Zarek Valentin, and Amobi Okugo. Their biggest signing before the season was a lottery ticket signing in Melano — a high-risk, high-reward type of move — and their midseason signing of English defender Steven Taylor didn’t exactly inspire celebrations, either.
Those are all players who are varying levels of good or useful, but lacked the potential that Timbers fans wanted and that the squad needed. MLS teams get better every season, but if anything, Portland’s squad took a slight step back, relying on several young players to take big steps forward in their development and for several veterans to maintain their quality. That, obviously, did not happen, and without that needed new blood, the Timbers struggled because of it.
Where the players came up short
Of course, not everything is down to the men in charge. The players have to find a way to execute out on the pitch, and too often that just didn’t happen for Portland. The biggest sign of their individual struggles was with Darlington Nagbe, who failed to live up to the promise and successes of last season. It’s hard to pin down exactly why Nagbe struggled this season, especially because it’s not like he was bad by any means. He just wasn’t as good as he was a year ago, which is somewhat bizarre considering his age and talent. He was expected to take a big step forward, and instead took a small step backwards.
There’s also the struggles of Melano that we’ve touched on before. Some of it certainly falls on Porter — he never gave Melano a consistent role, and stuck with him for far too long — but questions have to be asked of Melano himself. He has immense talent that we simply never saw this season, save for very occasional bursts. While there’s certainly explanations for some of his struggles, for him to go entire months without making a significant impact is unforgivable.
Then add some struggles and minor regressions from the likes of Diego Chara, Liam Ridgewell, and Alvas Powell, to name a few, and it’s easy to see why Portland so rarely impressed this past season. Worse, nagging injuries to players like Ridgewell and Nat Borchers — with Borchers eventually succumbing to a season-ending Achilles’ injury -- left the Timbers painfully thin at key positions and lacking some of their best leaders on the pitch at tough times. Ridgewell was only available to start 22 of the Timbers' 34 games, while Borchers started just 21.
Why the Timbers should get better
Despite their horrific road record, the Timbers were dominant at Providence Park, holding the fourth-best home record in MLS. They lost just three times at home and drew two other matches, a record that would have helped propel them to a possible Supporters’ Shield challenge if not for their abhorrent road record.
That home dominance suggests that their woes away from Portland may have been an aberration or a sign of simple bad luck, but either way it showed that they do still have the ability to be a top-level contender — they just need to show any kind of improvement on the road to get back to that level.
There’s also every reason to think that most of their disappointing players this season can bounce back to help fuel those needed improvements. As long as guys like Chara and Ridgewell can stay healthy, there’s not much reason to think that they can’t get back to more normal levels of production to help push the team back to the level they want to be at. The bigger question on that front is how Nagbe bounces back, but as long as there isn’t some personal issue plaguing him that we don’t know about, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be just fine.
Portland also have their core players locked up for the foreseeable future. When he whiffed on his preferred transfer targets, Wilkinson used Targeted Allocation Money to buy down the contract extensions of Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Chara, and Ridgewell, keeping them tied to the club and on relatively affordable wages. With smart roster management like that, it leaves the club plenty of resources to go out and improve the team.
And improving the team is even easier thanks to a number of other factors, like a wonderfully supportive owner, a great stadium, a coach who uses tactics players enjoy, and fans considered to be some of the best in MLS. Those are all things that make it much easier to entice players to come play for them, and Portland should be able to draw some pretty big names because of it, especially with most of the other top-end teams in MLS looking mostly locked up with their top talent right now.
What Portland shouldn’t do, though, is get too trigger happy and blow up what they have. Porter and Wilkinson aren’t perfect, but they’re a very good fit for Portland’s project right now, especially with their core players locked up for years to come. They have old and pricey players in Ned Grabavoy and Jack Jewsbury retiring and coming off the books, plenty of financial flexibility, and a proven ability to attract the kind of mid-20’s, ready-to-explode talent that they need right now.
Things can change for the better fast in MLS — just look at how Portland’s archrivals, the Seattle Sounders, went from one of the worst teams in the league at midseason to a playoff side in essentially a matter of weeks. The Portland Timbers were bad this season, yes, but they have the means, the ability, and the talent to turn things around just as quickly and become a title contender again. They just need to show the patience and commitment needed to stay the course, and not cut anything down too hastily.