The Team Portland Didn’t Know It Was Waiting For

The 2015 Timbers Win Their First Major League Soccer Championship

“I know we’re going to win it.

I can feel it.

Sometimes you just know it in your bones.”

These are the words of Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter, given the week before Sunday’s title game. They didn’t appear until Monday’s Oregonian, after Portland’s beloved soccer team hoisted its first trophy, the MLS Cup, 2,500 miles away in Columbus, Ohio after defeating the Columbus Crew FC 2-1.

Caleb Porter at the Providence Park Rally
Caleb Porter at the Providence Park Rally (photo from Oregonian)

“Don’t print that,” he told the reporter, “until after we win it.”

For anyone who’s ever met the man, or even heard him speak, you know that he meant it. And for anyone who’d witnessed the first game of his team’s run—where all 11 players on the field took penalties, before goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey finally hammered home the deciding goal—it was hard to feel any differently. Since that match, two calendar months ago, the much beloved but not always cohesive team went from nearly missing the playoffs to a team of destiny, an unstoppable juggernaut, twice blessed by the gods of mercy and goal posts. Choose your hyperbole.

By the end, it felt like a euphoric combination both surprising and inevitable that the team went from hugging the proverbial red line all season to champions. So disorienting was their rise that each postgame conversation at 442 Soccer Bar on Southeast Hawthorne where I watched the final—and almost every other match this season—devolved from pandemonium at the final whistle to an echo chamber of drunken misbelief.

“I don’t believe it.”

“I know, I really don’t believe it.”

“I know, it’s pretty much unbelievable.”

And so on.

Perhaps what makes it so unbelievable is the same thing that makes the Timbers—and the club’s relationship with its fans—so special. The city’s love for the team has never been based on the win/loss column. The Portland Timbers have been a franchise in some form or other since 1975 across four different amateur and professional leagues and never won a championship. In fact, they hadn’t actually reached a championship since—amazingly—1975. But these are facts that I learned only in the past week.

The city’s love for the team has never been based on the win/loss column.

So you can see how having a coach say he was sure they would win it–at any point–might seem a bit out of the ordinary. But from the moment he arrived, his message was clear: “Our goal is to win trophies here.” Something he’d already done at the college level by age 35.

His confidence has always come off as an inch shy of arrogance—but an important inch.

It’s obvious Porter is acutely aware of the special nature of the club’s relationship with the fans. I was at his first match as head coach in 2013, after which a red-tasselled Timbers Army scarf was handed down to him from the supporters section. Most likely, it was the same TA scarf around his neck at Tuesday night’s rain soaked victory rally at Providence Park, when he humbly asked if the team could come up to the “Capo” stand, a place usually reserved for the cheer leaders of each north end section.

And only on the condition that they wouldn’t do it again until they returned home with another cup.

It was the most intense moment of the rally, in a night that included midfielder George Fochive’s stirring victory chant, Liam Ridgewell’s mic drop, and assistant coach Sean McAuley leading the crowd in an off-key rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing,” before literally grabbing the mic out of team owner Merritt Paulson’s hands to follow it up with “We are the Champions.”

Despite this, it must have been a bittersweet day for many of the players. Before the day’s first parade float had left its moorings, the offseason had already begun for the team that is part of one of the more bizarre and ever-changing leagues in professional sports. Fans had woken up to the news that it’s shutdown left back, Jorge Villafana, had been effectively sold to Mexican side Santos Laguna. Which apparently, is a thing that happens. And it was learned another fan favorite (but for a completely different set of reasons), Maximiliano “Maxi” Urruti would not be retained, among a handful of other backups.

And though he’s still technically under contract, the end has almost certainly come for team Captain Will Johnson in a Timbers kit. The diminutive midfielder who along with Porter orchestrated the club’s rise out of mediocrity in 2013, had been injured most of the year only to come back and find his position had been eliminated from the team’s formation. He was inserted into the team’s final home match against Dallas in the waning moments, but those would be his only minutes of the entire playoff run. Though he wasn’t on the field much this season, it’s obvious this mostly mild-mannered group will miss his edge next season. Will, if you’re reading, you’re one of the smartest, toughest and most insufferable players in the league to face and we’ll miss having you on our side.

And so it’s on to next year—I can already hear Caleb Porter going out of his way to point out the plural in his early trophy declarations. With a culture of winning to match the pure passion of the team’s supporters, the Timbers will no doubt be back even stronger, and they’ll do it wearing a star over the axe on their chests.

I wish the season started tomorrow.

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