How The Portland Timbers Skipped Rebuilding

Here’s a scenario: A team riddled with high expectations, bad attitudes, inept coaching, and atrocious management, crashes and burns near the depths of their professional sports league. The coach is fired, high profile players ditched, and a new regime wheeled in. What’s the next step? Usually it’s rebuilding – young players are introduced into the team, and the emphasis for the season centers around development, not results. This could be a rebuilding period for the Portland Timbers. But it’s not. Turns out, the Timbers have already rebuilt.

The minute John Spencer was fired last summer, the Portland Timbers knew they would have to rebuild. The Timbers’ feel-good team of 2011 turned into an overhyped mess in 2012, a team lacking gumption, will, and talent. There were holes all over the roster, bad contracts and bad decisions plaguing the young franchise. The Timbers were headed for Rebuild Road long before beloved interim coach Gavin Wilkinson torpedoed the team to new lows.  

So the Timbers rebuilt: Caleb Porter was plucked out of Akron to be the new head coach, and with Wilkinson and owner Merritt Paulson, the rebuilding process commenced. It took five months – one offseason – to finish.

Usually, rebuilding efforts take at least a season, maybe two, three, or, in the case of, say, the Pittsburgh Pirates, a cool few decades. Rebuilding is hard; it connotes struggle, losing, inexperience and time. A lot of time. But thanks to the parody and constrictions of MLS and a resilient resourcefulness and hunger, the Timbers are ready to compete, ready to gun for the playoffs in 2013 – just months removed from finishing the 2012 season as the third worst team in MLS.

The signs that a successful season for Major League Soccer just a few years ago was simply not folding are plastered all over the current American soccer landscape. MLS has a hard salary cap of $2.8 million dollars, whereas the NFL, in comparison, has a maximum cap of 120.6 million dollars. How well teams work inside that tight cap, with all the obscure rules – like the Designated Player rule – MLS has, goes a long way in determining a team’s success.

Parody is also prevalent in MLS because the pool of players teams have to pick from to form their teams is relatively small, and the players in that pool don’t have a huge talent differential. Unless you’re the LA Galaxy or the New York Red Bulls and can attract the David Beckhams and Thierry Henrys of the world, you’re going to be scouting and drafting and signing the same type of player – lower league South American and UK players, washed up or older players from top leagues around the world, American players, and players who have played their entire soccer careers in America.

MLS is all about getting the biggest bang for the buck – it’s not like any other soccer league in the world in connection to its rules and regulations. That’s why some talented European soccer minds, like Ruud Gullit, never succeed in MLS – they don’t take the time to learn how to beat the system the league has to offer.

The knowledge that smarts and guile are separating the top teams from the bottom teams in MLS – LA has won the last two titles, but before that, small market teams like Salt Lake, Houston, and Columbus all won championships – made Gavin Wilkinson’s last two years all the more unsettling.

Wilkinson and Spencer couldn’t quite figure out how to get the best roster put together in Portland. They overspent for players like Rodney Wallace and Diego Chara, sacrificing cap room, while leaving other positions, notably left-back last year, almost completely unfilled. 

When he was hired in August, Porter had a plan, and he and Wilkinson executed this offseason with supreme efficiency, turning the roster upside down and inside out in months.

The Timbers cut ties with almost half their 2012 defense, shedding considerable cap room by trading Eric Brunner and releasing Steven Smith, turning those players into Mikael Silvestre – a swift move for leadership and skill purposes – and Michael Harrington, another veteran fullback, playing a position the Timbers desperately need help at. Both players will start in defense this year.

The Timbers also smartly used their allocation ranking and other trade exemptions and draft picks. They used a draft pick acquired from Chivas USA for a trade exemption to send to Seattle as compensation for singing Silvestre.

The Timbers also picked Diego Valeri out of Argentina and signed him to a DP contract in Kris Boyd’s spot. The Scot, one of the highest wage earners in MLS history, was swiftly axed by Porter.

The deal to get hat-trick debutant Ryan Johnson from Toronto was similarly crafty. The Timbers packaged a draft pick, a backup goalkeeper, and other cap sweeteners to get their man. The trade for now integral midfield man Will Johnson was also well constructed. Portland took advantage of the fact that RSL had to shed cap to get a good player at a mediocre price.

Some of the Timbers’ aggressive moves in the transfer market were set up by smartly renegotiating in-house contracts, namely Wallace and former DP Jose Valencia, freeing space in that tightly construed cap for bigger and better players.

You certainly get the feeling out of Jeld-Wen Field that the Portland Timbers are a better run club now than they ever have been before at the MLS level. If Porter can live up to his billing as a coach, there is no reason the Timbers can’t become a playoff team this season.

The Timbers think they can compete. Bringing Slivestre, an expensive, 35-year-old Premier League veteran is a win-now move, as is bringing former Premier League strike Frederic Piquionne in on trial. With just an off-season’s good work from the front office, and the Timbers have rebooted their franchise, rediscovered the enthusiasm of 2011 and preseason 2012, and reacquainted themselves with the creeping expectations they failed to meet last year. That other “re” word? Rebuilding? The Timbers aren’t having any of it. 

Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports


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