With the win against Los Angeles Galaxy in the bag, the Portland Timbers’ 2013 season endgame looks in good shape. With four games to go they sit in third, four points above the Galaxy and the Colorado Rapids, and still to play the two teams above them: Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders. While a first-ever playoff berth isn’t certain, at this point the only fans that aren’t optimistic are those that don’t want to jinx their secret good vibes. The LA game felt like a larger benchmark met: it was a win, but a win whose 3 points were especially valuable in terms of inertia and team psychology. When the season gets autumnal, these postgame feelings are twofold: the victors get extra juice for their remaining fixtures, while the losers are that much more spent with even less time on their side. The result carries more weight because the teams are adjacent on the conference table.
Caleb Porter even believes that they have a chance for the Supporters’ Shield, the prize for the team with the best regular-season record and a ticket to the CONCACAF Champions League. Of course, it’s his job to believe things like that, because if the team and the fans don’t believe, it won’t happen. A quick look at the standings won’t do anything to dampen the spirits of glass-half-full Timbers fans: The New York Red Bulls have the most points, at 52, while the Timbers are at 49 and have a game in hand. The Sounders are at 51, but have played two less than NYRB and one less than PTFC, and so they are positioned nicely.
The brilliance of the Timbers’ current table position and fixture list is the influence they can have on the top spots in the Western Conference: they’ve beaten LA and could, without a stretch of the imagination, knock off RSL and Seattle. There are no remaining games against Eastern Conference teams, so in order to have a shot at the Shield, they’d need to finish perfect and hope that no one in the other half of the country followed suit. It is within the realm of possibility. And really, why not dream? RSL just lost the Open Cup to lowly, lowly DC United, and Seattle is Seattle and the game will be fiery and at home. Portland will also be the third team they play in 9 days, so they’ll be tired.
This weekend, however, the Timbers will be away in Vancouver. It’ll be a tough game, though one that on paper they should win. If the Timbers do win, and other results fall in their favor, a playoff berth could be theirs with three games to play. The goal will suddenly be significantly more prestigious.
Table-watching and point counting aside, it’s a good time to start taking stock of the season. By and large, it’s been hugely impressive from the Timbers and giant step from last season’s anemic bumblings. The Timbers have consistently tried to play attractive, intelligent attacking soccer, and pulled it off frequently (if in streaks). Possession-based attacking soccer is hard to pull off in any physical league and the MLS is physical, both in its frantic pace and its tackling. A team needs to be technically good, able to settle the ball and pass accurately on the ground in quick succession, to play like this. It’s not a style associated at all with the US, either on the professional or national level. It is however a lot of fun to watch. As the MLS matures and pulls from a broader, deeper pool of talent of both players and coaches, we should hope the styles represented continue to multiply and evolve. That the Timbers are now a marquee name in this evolution is as much reason for optimism as any remaining results. Besides, the results will be good.