Stay the course: Timbers edge toward the playoffs

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PORTLAND, ORE. (AP) - The Portland Timbers mirror the personality of first-year coach Caleb Porter. With two matches left and a playoff berth within grasp, the team is all business.

The Timbers are in first place in Major League Soccer’s heated Western Conference, a point ahead of Real Salt Lake and two points in front of the Seattle Sounders.

Portland and New York are atop the race for the Supporter’s Shield for the team with 53 points in 32 games, although the Red Bulls hold the tiebreaker with more wins.

The even-keeled Porter has his team believing that it’s not “if” but “when” the Timbers earn their first post-season berth since joining Major League Soccer in 2011.

“We’re locked in,” Porter said. “We’re very business-like right now and we’re not getting ahead of ourselves.”

Echoed midfielder Will Johnson: “Everybody’s dialed in and on board.”

And certainly, it appears that it is only a matter of time until Portland clinches a spot in the crowded race. They need just one point to be in, either Saturday night at home against Real Salt Lake, or on the road against last-place Chivas USA on Oct. 26.

The Timbers (13-5-14) have not lost in six straight matches overall, and they have not lost in 14 straight at Jeld-Wen Field this season.

In their previous meetings with Real Salt Lake, the Timbers played to a 3-all draw at home before losing 4-2 in Salt Lake.

“We know we’re two games away from doing something special, but we’re going to focus on Salt Lake, that’s it,” Porter said. “We’re going to focus on getting three points, that’s absolutely it.”

Porter has led the Timbers on a dramatic turnaround from last season, when they finished 8-10-16 for eighth place in the conference and 17th in the league.

Portland axed fiery coach John Spencer midseason and replaced him in the interim with general manager Gavin Wilkinson. The team hired new coach Porter last August, but he didn’t immediately join the Timbers so that he could finish out his seventh season as the coach at the University of Akron.

Porter led the Zips to an 18-1-3 record, the Mid-America Conference championship and into the third round of the NCAA tournament. It was the sixth straight season Akron made it to the postseason; the team won the national championship in 2010.

The Timbers are led by Darlington Nagbe _ who played for Porter at Akron _ with nine goals and four assists. Diego Valeri of Argentina, a designated player for Portland, has eight goals and a team-record 12 assists. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts has a career-high 12 shutouts this season.

“I think overall, it’s just that our mentality is good. We’re a cohesive team. These guys fight for each other, they work for each other, they have great chemistry,” Porter said. “That’s a common thread in every successful team at any level. You look at the best teams in the world, teams that raise trophies are teams that have good chemistry, teams that remain humble.”

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