By MIKE DONOVAN
After clinching a MLS playoff spot for the first time, the Timbers locker room on Saturday was not filled with champagne-soaked celebrations or even extra smiles on the players’ faces. Instead, it was business as usual for a club that has produced one of the best one-year turnarounds in league history.
Head coach Caleb Porter believes that the quick ascension is one of the reasons why there were no parties thrown after the club’s 0-0 draw with Real Salt Lake in their home finale.
“I think we’ve evolved this club so quickly and gotten so many good results this year and have been so confident that to some extent making the playoffs isn’t something that we would talk about that much or celebrate much,” Porter said. “I think that’s a real positive, but it is a big thing for this club, it is a milestone that we’re happy about, we’re proud of.”
Despite the lack of over-the-top revelry, making the playoffs definitely felt like a major accomplishment for some players. Last season, Portland finished with the third-worst record in MLS.
“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs the past couple of years. Just seeing everything come through means a lot,” said defender Futty Danso, who is the club’s longest tenured player, having signed with the USL-Timbers in April 2009.
Darlington Nagbe, who was the first college player drafted by the MLS Timbers, has seen both his ability and his team’s play evolve for the better in his three MLS seasons. The achievement of making the postseason was not lost on the 23-year-old midfielder.
“Making the playoffs is great,” Nagbe said. “This is the first year we’ve been able to do it and we’re all happy and we know that we want to win MLS Cup.”
With just one week left in the regular season, Portland currently sits at the top spot in the Western Conference standings. A win at Chivas USA would guarantee the No.1 seed while a loss could see the Timbers having to play in the Wild Card match.
Making the postseason is one factor into turning the Timbers into a model franchise on the field, according to Porter.
“The best teams in the league are consistently in the playoffs, that’s kind of the measuring stick, and that’s what we want to be as a club that’s in the playoffs which gives you the chance to raise trophies, and ultimately that’s what we want to accomplish,” Porter said.
Ever since the club’s original founding in 1975, the Portland Timbers have been able to count on a crowd that might influence the game on the field. But this season, the play on the pitch has combined with a rowdy Timbers Army to make Jeld-Wen Field one of the hardest places to play in league history.
The club’s 38 points at home this season is good for the sixth-most in MLS history and the Timbers are currently on a 15-match home unbeaten streak.
“This year we were one of, if not the best team at home,” Jack Jewsbury said. “I think we kind of pride ourselves on feeding off the energy that the crowd brings and the Timbers Army. It’s a huge boost to us and you can tell that in our record.”
Its not just their home record (11-1-5) that stands out for the club, but also their defensive efforts at Jeld-Wen Field. The club notched 11 shutouts at home in 2013, which is the most in a single season in MLS history.
“Everyone wants to talk about the attacking soccer, but the reality is, we are a very organized group and we pride ourselves on that,” Jewsbury said.
Portland has not given up a goal in front of its home crowd since Aug., despite four of its last five matches being against teams that will make the postseason.
“Defensively, we’ve been solid for the past month or two. And it’s not just the back four or Donovan, it’s the whole team,” Jewsbury said.
A STAT THAT NAGBE DOESN’T WANT TO LEAD
When Darlington Nagbe was brought down by Kyle Beckerman 12 minutes into Saturday night’s match, Nagbe became the league’s most-fouled player in 2013. Heading into the last week of the season, Nagbe been fouled 78 times, which is three more than RSL’s Javier Morales.
While the Akron product admits that in some games it is “annoying” to constantly be fouled, he seems to know that it is not always a bad thing as fouls can lead to attacking set pieces.
“You just got to expect it, it’s going to come with the game,” said Nagbe, who leads the Timbers in goals with nine.
Despite being fouled more than any other player, Nagbe is one of seven outfield players in the league who has started every match this season.
As far as knowing why he gets fouled so much, Nagbe believes his ability to be strong in traffic leads to some of the calls. The Liberian-born midfielder also prides himself on not going to ground easy.
“I try to stay on my feet. I feel like, if you try and stay on your feet, then another guy will come in and knock you,” Nagbe said. “I just try to make good plays and try not to dive and embellish in the game.”
What do you think of these notes? Do you believe that the team should be happy for making the playoffs despite the 0-0 draw? Did you expect them to make the playoffs at the start of the season? Do you believe Nagbe is fouled too much?
Share your thoughts below.