He never wants to talk about it, but so much of Caleb Porter’s first season in Portland has been about putting the Timbers’ short MLS history behind them, whether that be from moving on from two seasons outside of the playoffs or turning around a terrible road record that’d come to define the club. Sitting fourth in the West and having won at Kansas City a week ago, Portland’s already started to match owner Merritt Paulson’s aspirations. Reflections on the past will soon be little more than a literary device for unimaginative authors.
There are, however, small remnants of the past which keep popping up. For example, with the Timbers in Dallas tonight, Portland fans are reminded of two of the worst losses in team history. Two years ago, during the team’s inaugural season, Portland lost 4-0 in their first trip to what was then Pizza Hut Park, and while the Timbers earned a 1-1 draw when they returned next March, their last visit to Dallas ended with an embarrassing 5-0 defeat. In three trips to visit Schellas Hyndman’s team, Portland’s been outscored 10-1.
But with both teams making so many improvements since last season, it’s hard to see those lopsided results as precedence. FC Dallas, who missed last year’s playoffs, have the best record in the league, their 6-1-2 mark leaving them six points ahead of the Western Conference’s three-way tie for second place. Within that cluster are the Portland Timbers, who, along with Dallas, are one of team teams yet to be dealt a second loss.
For Dallas, a couple of key additions and some improved health have fueled their hot start. Kenny Cooper was brought back to Texas this offseason, and while it took a while for Hyndman to feel out his best spot, the big striker has adapted to a wide role in Dallas’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Those two holders – Andrew Jacobson and Michel – have been crucial to bolstering a midfield that spent the preseason looking for an identity. Raul Fernandez has also replaced the departed Kevin Hartman at the back, but with playmaker David Ferreira fit and with the team from the get-go, health has been as vital as upgrades for Hyndman.
(This is also where we should mention Jackson, Dallas’s best player through the season’s first two months. But, since I painted myself into a corner with the change and health angles, consider Jackson done wrong.)
For Portland, it’s been all about the upgrades. Ryan Johnson is giving them production they never got from Cooper or Kris Boyd. Will Johnson’s thriving in his new home. Donovan Ricketts is flashing the form most thought he’d lost in Los Angeles, while Diego Valeri is one of the league’s most exciting additions. They’re bringing the best out of holdovers Darlington Nagbe, Diego Chara, and Rodney Wallace, though the team’s biggest upgrade – luring Porter from Akron – deserves credit for their improvements.
In a meeting between two teams much improved over last season, we can afford to discard the past and concentrate and a surprisingly intriguing present. Rather than wonder whether a 10-1 margin can transcend two club’s changes, better to ask if Pederson and Michel can contain the new-look Timbers.