How Portland Timbers went from MLS champs to out of playoffs (and how they plan to fix it)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Caleb Porter is a serious man.

The Portland Timbers coach does not laugh or joke that often, at least not with reporters, but when thinking about his last couple seasons in Portland – and how ruthless this soccer business can be – he can’t help but crack up.

Just a season after Porter led the Timbers to the MLS Cup, he missed the playoffs. He knows bigger clubs have also struggled with similar post-championship struggles and managers have lost their jobs for it.

“I’m just glad I made it through that next year, whereas [Jose] Mourinho and [Claudio] Ranieri didn’t. The year after those two coaches won the league, they both got fired. That’s nuts,” Porter says.

He laughs hard, because what else can he do?

Caleb Porter has been with the Timbers since 2013.

Porter still has his job, but he has questions to answer. How did Timbers fall off so quickly after winning it all? What went wrong?

And how can he get them back on top?

***

It was everything that Porter and Gavin Wilkinson, the general manager and president of soccer for the Timbers, wanted to see from the opening match of the 2017 season. In cold, bitter rain on a typical Portland night last Friday, the Timbers walloped MLS newcomer Minnesota United by a 5-1 score. One week into the 2017 season, an aggressive offseason rebuild looked like it was paying off.

The process started even before the Timbers missed the playoffs last year, and seemed to confirm what Wilkinson and Porter believed was at the heart of the team’s issues: They simply didn’t have enough depth to stay at the top of the league. Lack of depth meant injuries caused a huge drop in quality. The team had to abandon its preferred style at times. It also meant players didn’t need to fight for starting spots. Complacency crept in. Everything, from team chemistry to the team’s identity, suffered.

“If we’re able to build depth and we’re able to create competition at every position, then some of those issues are removed,” Wilkinson tells FOX Sports.

The Timbers celebrate one of their goals in the opening match of the 2017 season, a 5-1 win over Minnesota United on March 3.

The Timbers have kept a core chunk of their starting 11 – stars like Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi – but have rebuilt much of the rest of their roster. The goal was to have three solid players at every position. They’ve nearly achieved that, but have an open centerback spot after a season-ending injury to Gbenga Arokoyo in preseason has left them shopping for a replacement in a tough window.

Part of the rebuild, for instance, was buying out Lucas Melano’s expensive contract after a poor year and a half and replacing him with Sebastian Blanco, a transfer that took a long 45 days to complete. Some depth pieces, on the other hand, came in from a years-long effort to develop young players in the Timbers reserve system. The effort put into this season’s roster required more patience than ever, but it looks like a clear improvement.

It’s not that the Timbers starting 11 was bad last year. It’s that they rarely played together. Only 11 games into that season, 11 players had already missed time for injury, and it only continued from there. As Porter puts it: “When we were healthy, when we had our top 11, we won every game we played.”

Now, with an even stronger starting 11 and better depth across the board – at least on paper – weathering such misfortune shouldn’t be as difficult this time around. The depth they built will already face its first test Sunday vs. the LA Galaxy in the second week of the MLS season (7 p.m. ET, FS1), as three Timbers starters may miss the match due to injury.

This depth experiment is getting its first test, and it’s getting it quickly.

***

A strong roster and depth alone aren’t enough though. Porter has gone out of his way to focus on building chemistry this year with big things, like team activities off the pitch, and small things, like shuffling travel roommates.

If injuries were the main problem last season, then chemistry – at least from the outside – looked like a strong contributing factor. In 2016, winger Dairon Asprilla was taken off the bench without explanation and later loaned to Millonarios in Colombia, costing the Timbers a valuable wide player. Adi’s Twitter account, meanwhile, shared news reports that his agent wanted him transferred elsewhere in a bid to break into the Nigeria national team. At one point, he missed a team flight and was benched in a loss to rival Seattle when the Timbers could’ve used him.

Some fans latched onto those events as reason for worry – as evidence of problems in the locker room – but Wilkinson says the situations were “taken out of context” and “blown out of proportion.” Both Adi and Asprilla return to the Timbers this year, and both figure to play important roles. Wilkinson says Adi “has always been a professional” while Asprilla’s return from his loan has been a good thing.

“We have a situation we’ve loaned a player out and brought them back,” Wilkinson says of Asprilla. “That’s a situation where it’s a learning experience for the player and the player is able to understand what they had. It’s a renewed energy and a renewed focus. Sometimes players need a change of scenery to appreciate what they had.”

For Porter and Wilkinson, it all comes back to depth again. Depth builds chemistry and cohesion in a way team-bonding activities cannot. Having players who are excited to be in Portland offers the best kind of depth, too.

Their thesis: If players feel like spots won’t simply be given to them and performances will be rewarded, they will push themselves – and each other – harder. If the team has the right depth, it can play its style and maintain its identity, even through injuries and suspensions.

“In 2015 when we won the championship, we didn’t do it with 11 guys. We did it with a squad of 22 guys,” Porter says, a message he delivered to his players in the locker room during preseason. “It wasn’t the starting 11 that won the Cup, it was the team that we had and the depth that we had.

“In this league, that’s important with 34 games and travel and heat and international call-ups and injuries. You have to have a deep team. That was the No. 1 goal of this offseason – to rebuild the team in a way where we have depth.”

***

When Porter heard U.S. women’s national team coach Jill Ellis make the analogy, he knew exactly what she meant.

“Everyone wants to be at the top of the mountain,” Porter recalls were the gist of her remarks at a high-level coaching course offered by the U.S. Soccer Federation. “Once you get there, the air is thin so you need a hard reset and you need to climb again.”

The USWNT, fresh after winning the 2015 World Cup, stumbled the following year in the Rio Olympics for their worst finish in a major tournament. The USWNT’s kind of dominance isn’t easy to sustain, but the analogy of climbing to the top of a summit may fit the Timbers better after their own title-winning 2015.

Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe win the MLS Cup on Dec. 6, 2015. The Timbers beat the Columbus Crew, 2-1.

Staying exactly where the Timbers finished 2015 was never possible.

Not with the short offseason caused by a deep MLS playoffs run. Not with players looking for more enticing offers on the heels of contributing to a title-winning season. Not with the salary cap rules of MLS that effectively punished the Timbers for their MLS Cup win when they had to pay win bonuses. Not with all these factors that made keeping the same roster together impossible and depth hard to build.

You can liken it to the air being so thin at the summit of a mountain that you can’t stay there, but the bottom line is this: Winning changes things. Whatever the team had when it won a title, it would never stay exactly the same. Recognizing that was key for the Timbers’ 2017 rebuild.

“There are only a few teams that get to the top of the mountain,” Porter says. “I’ve had the opportunity to get there, but how do you get there again?”

The Portland Timbers face the LA Galaxy on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET, live on FS1.