CALEB PORTER has the proof points down pat.
"Won the west, top three in goals scored and against, top four in competitions," says the Portland Timbers' second-year coach, following the finale of the preseason Rose City Invitational on March 1. He's referring, of course, to the club's transformative 2013 season, when Soccer City, USA shifted from well-supported underachievers to well-formed contenders, guided by the professorial former college coach. In Porter's first year at the helm of a pro club, his fluid, aggressive system caught Major League Soccer off guard and propelled Portland to deep runs in the league playoffs and US Open Cup tourney and a berth in the 2014 CONCACAF Champions League.
It was a smashing success, with performances finally fit to absorb all of the Timbers Army's noise. So how do coach and team expect to top such a debut? What does success look like this season? Let's go to the proof points.
"It's all about the end of the year and going another round," Porter says, standing in the hallway outside the press room, as wide-eyed as he was on the sideline minutes earlier. "Going to the MLS Cup, further in Open Cup, getting down to the group stages in Champions League.
"Raising some hardware," Porter says.
To do so, Portland reloaded during the offseason, adding a pair of perfect fits to Porter's possession-happy system (forward Gastón "La Gata" Fernández and defender Norberto Paparatto), along with wild-card scorer Steve Zakuani and promising midfielder/back Jorge Villafaña.
Key cogs to the Timbers' growth last year also return. MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Donovan Ricketts and US National Team trialist Michael Harrington will try to repeat career years, while returning stars Diego Valeri (an MVP frontrunner, if healthy), Diego Chara (a honey-badger-like defensive mid), Darlington Nagbe (a new father who's shown a more aggressive tact in the preseason), Will Johnson (did I already use a honey badger comparison?), and Max Urruti (a late-2013 addition, his danger grows with his comfort level) look to forge even stronger roots in the freshly christened Providence Park.
It's a mix Porter says he's had fun working with.
"I've got a stable of attacking players that have a really high soccer IQ," Porter says. "You're going to see more consistency out of us. You're not going to see a ton of highs and lows. I think that's key when you build a core group, year after year: You're going to lose games, but the wheels aren't going to fall off."
Such steadiness is palatable—even in Section 203. That's where season-ticket holder Ron Orchard stands during matches, but as he walks along the sidewalk outside the stadium after the preseason finale (doing a double-take after passing the Nagbe family—stroller and all), Orchard says his preseason feeling is hardly anxious.
"There's definitely excitement," he says, Timbers Army patch sewn to his right sleeve. "But there's also a calm consistency."
Good point. But can the team provide the proof?
"A lot of people didn't really expect what happened last year," says club captain Jack Jewsbury. "It definitely puts a target on your back to be better, and that's a challenge for us.
"But when this group has been challenged, we've showed some of our best soccer."