PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The Portland Timbers were the surprise of Major League Soccer last season under first-year coach Caleb Porter. Playing what fans dubbed “Porterball,” the team finished atop the Western Conference standings and advanced to the conference finals.
When the season finally closed on the Timbers, Porter was already plotting his club’s improvement.
“It’s only the beginning. We’re going to be back. There’s no doubt about it,” he said at the time.
The new season opens for Portland on Saturday night against the Philadelphia Union at the newly renamed Providence Park.
Porter, with his possession-oriented attack, was named the MLS Coach of the Year last season after guiding the Timbers to a 14-5-15 record and their first playoff berth since joining the league in 2011. The finish was a stunning 23-point turnaround from the previous season.
The run was highlighted by a 15-game unbeaten streak, as well as a league-best undefeated stretch of nine straight on the road.
Portland’s five losses tied the league mark for fewest in a 34-match season. The Timbers lost just one regular-season game at their downtown Portland stadium.
The Timbers’ 15 draws were the most in the league since 2011. A key this season will be turning those one-point outcomes to three-point wins.
In addition to Porter’s postseason honor, Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri was named the MLS Newcomer of the Year after scoring 10 goals and a league-high 13 assists. The 27-year-old Argentine was the first Timbers player to have double-figure goals and assists in a single season, and set the club records in both categories.
Donovan Ricketts was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, with career-highs for shutouts with 14 and saves with 92. His shutouts topped the league, and he had a 0.97 goals-against average and made 73 percent of his saves.
Other top performers included Will Johnson, who had career bests with nine goals and five assists. Portland’s captain was also named to the 2013 All-Star team and was the Timbers’ top scorer in the postseason with two goals. Fellow midfielder Darlington Nagbe also had career-bests with nine goals and four assists - including six goals on the road - while starting in all 34 matches.
As a result of their success, the Timbers did not make any major changes in the offseason. The team’s two biggest acquisitions both came from Argentina: striker Gaston Fernandez and center back Norberto Paparatto. Fernandez, 30, has played for several first-division teams in Argentina, winning season titles with three different clubs, while the 30-year-old Paparatto has played for top-division Club Atletico Tigre in Argentina since 2007.
“A lot of other teams have more pieces to manage, to figure out, they’re still tinkering with their systems, still trying to figure out the philosophy they’re going to play, all that stuff,” Porter said. “We’re clear on that, we’re set on that. So the nice thing is we can already start to dig into some concepts, some tactical things that we want to work on instead of trying to figure out our personnel, who’s going to start and all that stuff.”
Portland will also make its debut in the CONCACAF Champions League, after one of the four allocated berths was given to the team with the best regular-season record in the conference opposite of the Supporters’ Shield champion. In this case, it was the Timbers. The spot formerly went to the runner-up in the MLS Cup final.
An MLS team has never won the competition, which is used to select the CONCACAF representative for the FIFA Club World Cup in December in Morocco.