Timbers again thrive in 'must-win' mode, but urgency remains

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Portland picked up a big win on Sunday, but the job is hardly finished. Richard Farley was at Providence Park to get the reaction:

PORTLAND, Ore. – The 2015 postseason gave Major League Soccer a glimpse of what the Portland Timbers are capable of when they get on a roll. For most of 2016, though, that glimpse had dwindled in the rearview mirror, with the specter of a second season in three without playoff soccer looking through the windshield.

I told the guys today, playoffs start now. If we win, we advance. Next game, we win, we advance. We have that mentality right now.”

- Caleb Porter

On Sunday at Providence Park, however, the team seemed to change course, if only slightly. Thanks to a 1-0 win over the visiting Colorado Rapids and other Western Conference results results that broke their way, the Timbers now control their own destiny. Win on Sunday in Vancouver, a city in which the team has enjoyed success since moving to MLS, and Portland returns to the postseason.

“We’re excited. We still have two games left. Everything’s in our hands,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said after his team’s defeat of Colorado. With a CONCACAF Champions League decider looming on Wednesday, one where Portland needs to defeat Costa Rican powerhouse Saprissa to qualify for the knockout round, the Timbers were already in win-or-else mode.

“We control our destiny on everything. That’s great. That’s not the position we were in in 2014,” Porter said, alluding to the last year the Timbers missed the playoffs. It was another season when this year’s defending champions fell from great heights, with the club having finished the 2013 regular season first in the Western Conference.

“In `14 we had to win and hope for a result. In this one, we win and we’re in. That’s a great feeling. If we win in Champions League, we’re out of the group. And if we win our last game, it’s playoffs and Cascadia Cup.” Vancouver would need to win by three goals next Sunday to prevent Portland from claiming the regional honor.

“I told the guys today, playoffs start now. If we win, we advance. Next game, we win, we advance. We have that mentality right now.”

Portland has had two weeks to live in that must-win ethos, ever since a 1-0 loss at DSG Park on Oct. 1 took destiny out of the team’s hands. But with Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City drawing in Sandy, Utah, on Sunday, and Seattle losing at FC Dallas, the Timbers no longer have to rely on others, even if their backs are still firmly against the wall.

“[Must-win] - I think that was the message going into today from Caleb,” retiring club captain Jack Jewsbury said about the team’s do-or-die preparation after what could be his final home game. “It was that if we don’t get a win today, the season could be over, if some other results don’t go our way. And guys stepped up.”

It’s a mode the Timbers have thrived on in recent seasons, even if they’ve been too casual about putting themselves in danger. Last season, Portland finished third in the Western Conference but needed a win on the final weekend to clinch a spot in the postseason. The year before that, Portland claimed 10 points over its last four games but fell one point short of the playoffs, having dug too deep a hole.

Coming into Sunday’s games, the regret of 2014 was beginning to feel more familiar, with the same lack of urgency that plagued that year’s squad seemingly defining this year’s approach. Over the course of Sunday’s dominant first half, though – 45 minutes in which Portland outshot the former Supporters’ Shield race-leaders 13-3 --  the defending champions quelled any notion they may not realize the occasion.

“I think what you’ve seen with this group is when our backs are against it a little bit, everybody steps up and you get the best,” Jewsbury explained, a sentiment that was echoed by others in the squad.

“Myself, and I feel like this team, as well, we kind of revel in that,” goalkeeper Jake Gleeson said when asked about the must-win approach. “We enjoy that pressure and enjoy the opportunity to go out there and get the job done.”

On one hand, those are the type of platitudes you would hear from any team. Given how Portland has always finished under Porter, though, there’s substance behind the hype. Since Caleb Porter joined the club in 2013, Portland is 9-2-3 in the regular season during October. And in the postseason, only Real Salt Lake in 2013 has knocked a Porter team out of the playoffs.

“We’ve just got to take it one at a time,” Porter said, evoking Bull Durham’s Crash Davis while still keeping Wednesday’s CCL showdown in focus. “We’ve got two (games) left, but if we [win them], I like our chances in the knockout game, too. Now that’s three on the spin, first road game (won), and (we can) roll it right into the knockout game.

“(We) can’t get ahead of ourselves; can’t pat ourselves on the back. Just got to move on and focus on tomorrow, on getting ready for the next game.”

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.