A New Hope

As fans and players await the second leg of the playoff tie with Seattle, Kevin Alexander writes about the changes the Portland Timbers face both on and off the pitch.

At three hours, this two-legged tie between Seattle and Portland is appropriately epic in length, with the potential for going even longer on a night where the away goal rule is not in effect. By the time the final whistle blows on Thursday night, and fat ladies everywhere begin to sing, the skies over Jeld-Wen Field will be black, and it is not hard to imagine, given this is Portland in November, that they will have opened for the denouement of what the noisy majority will be hoping is merely part one of a forthcoming trilogy of blockbuster performances.

Caleb Porter, the auteur whose low budget features were a big hit with the college crowd, directs the action with a steady hand and sharp eye, and there truly is no doubting that it is he who has been directing the action thus far. Sigi Schmid’s team are, for many pundits and twitterati alike, the better team, on paper at least, and there is no doubting they “controlled” more of the play in the first tie, but Porter’s tactic of using his full-backs to stretch the play in order to give his three pacey front line goal-threats – Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace – a half-yard of space with which to hurt their opponents is a tactic that defies outside control, when it works. And it worked in Seattle, for the most part.

The Timbers lead the way in Seattle.
The Timbers lead the way in Seattle.

As a postseason debut, a 2-1 victory in your rival’s backyard is impressive but as my esteemed colleague notes in his Six Degrees for the match, that late goal by Alonso makes things just that little bit more tense for many with green and gold in their veins. To extend the film-making metaphor to its very limit, it was that point in the narrative where our heroes are imperiled by gruesome agents of the enemy and we’re left to wonder if, or how, they will ever get past the challenge.

The goal would have done little to change Porter’s thinking though since playing for a draw in the second leg doesn’t seem like a game plan he would adopt whatever the result from the first. It’s in his nature to play for the win every time, and that is reflected on the pitch by the players. But this isn’t like a Mourinho club, where there’s a sense that a winning mentality comes with kowtowing to the boss and fitting into the boxes he constructs, rather it’s not uncommon to see players in Portland with the smiles of those who can’t believe they are getting to do something they love for a living in front of 18,000 of some of the very best people in the world.

Those fans have been through the mill over the last couple of years, but as many who have been supporting the club from long before Seattle was a glint in Don Garber’s eye will tell it, it’s all nothing new under the sun. There have been other crises in the past, and there will be more ahead, but for now it feels damn good to sing when they’re winning for a change.

Porter, more than anyone, is well aware of the change in circumstance around the Timbers in 2013. He recently addressed the club’s new station as top dogs in the west to the official site:

In some ways, when you have success it gets harder, and it gets harder because other teams know now that they have to play their best to beat you. And they also want to beat you because when you’re on top everyone wants to knock you off the top.

The key to Porter’s success in the last few weeks has been to adapt to changing circumstances with a deftness that belies his “rookie head coach” status. With a laser focus on progressing all the way to MLS Cup final by doing all the simple things better than anyone else, something not unlike the “aggregation of marginal gains” approach adopted by the since-wildly-successful British cycling team, there is truly no one the fans or Timbers ownership would trust more than Caleb Porter to guide their boys in green into the Conference Final, all the while maintaining a sense that everything, as Jack Jewsbury said to local media, remained strictly “business as usual” for the Timbers.

Yet, even as the team evolve to face fresh challenges, at times unrecognizable as the team that launched Porterball way back in the spring, one thing does remain the same in the Rose City despite the shifting sands, and that is the support from the stands.

mlsanalistIn a recent reddit AMA, Matt Doyle proved that tall poppy syndrome was alive and kicking in the media when his answer referred to Portland’s fans as “sanctimonious, arrogant, entitled know-it-alls this year [whereas] last year, they were friendly, respectful and (in general) depressed”. Rather than a direct attack on the Timbers faithful, as it would be easy to interpret, he goes on to expand the comments to reflect the trend that there is nothing more insufferable to some than the success of others. The assertion that the Timbers fans are different this year from last is a little disingenuous since it’s natural that the gallows humor of some of 2011 and much of 2012 would give way to something more buoyant in 2013, with the team confounding expectations for year one of a full scale reboot. In actual fact, nothing has really changed save for the fact that the improvement on the pitch casts a differing light on the stands for some.

The perception of the Army’s support from some quarters has shifted from that of scrappy underdogs with hearts of gold to cocky posers who play up for the cameras, but it really isn’t the Timbers Army’s nature to put on a show for anyone else, but rather for them to do what they do and let everyone else be a part of it, if they want to. The action is on the pitch, and that is where the show is, and always will be.

Some fans reacted to the comments very negatively, but then they don’t have the guiding hand of Caleb Porter keep them focused on the stuff that really matters. That ability to focus on ensuring what you yourself do is to the best you can to the exclusion of what others say or do is something that will come with time and sustained success, as will further attacks from those that resent or envy what is happening in this strange little corner of the world.

Whatever the outcome on Thursday, and beyond, the attitude of fans and staff alike as they prepare to take to the field again is best summed up in chant.

Fuck ‘em all!
Fuck ‘em all!
Vancouver, Seattle, Montreal,
Cos we are the Timbers, and we are the best,
We are the Timbers, so fuck all the rest!

Now let’s fucking do this thing.

4 thoughts on “A New Hope

  1. In your graphic, in the upper right, I’m pretty sure that is Jewsbury rather than Harrington running up the right hand side

    1. Yup, you’re right. Um. I’m counting that as my obligatory mistake in every picture I do, so yeah, uh, totally meant it.

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