THE PORTLAND TIMBERS had the top team in Major League Soccer, FC Dallas, all tied up with a scoreless first half on June 15 at Jeld-Wen Field. The first 45 minutes of the ESPN-televised match played out like an Inception sequel starring TV executives and MLS brass: frenetic back-and-forth action across the pitch, a sun-splashed stadium heaving with soon-to-be hoarse fans, and two of the league's top teams trading shots—left, right, and center.
The hype heading into the clash of Western Conference powers felt justified. The buzz was palpable. The match became physical. The temperature rose. But inside the locker room under the north end of the stadium, the Timbers were cool.
Just stick with the plan, said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, and things would work themselves out.
"They were gonna get tired," Nagbe said. "And the goal was going to come, no matter what happened."
It certainly did. Seven minutes into the second half, when Nagbe spun, stepped back and scorched a shot into the only part of the net that could make on-form Dallas keeper Raul Fernandez peevishly throw his arms to his sides. But that's when things really heated up. Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl tweeted/wondered aloud about fast tracking Nagbe's US citizenship, so he could play for the US Men's National Team. Fans began lobbying President Obama's Twitter account. Dallas countered. The FieldTurf broiled. Portland defender Michael Harrington ran to the sideline to change his sweltering shoes. He'd chill his heels on a wet towel beneath his locker after the match, a 1-0 win that pushed Portland's unbeaten streak to 13 (the Timbers' last losing match was on March 9) and solidified its standing atop a number of MLS power rankings.
It's easy to point to first-year coach Caleb Porter as the source of Portland's confidence. But he's just the wellspring. Holdovers from a disappointing sophomore year have bloomed (Rodney Wallace, Kalif Alhassan, and Nagbe), while experienced returnees (Diego Chara, Jack Jewsbury, and Porter-selected Donovan Ricketts) have put in yeoman efforts. And incoming All-Star nominees Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, Harrington, along with veterans Frederic Piquionne and Ryan Johnson (all brought on by Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson) are helping set a tone that's burned across Goose Hollow this spring.
"Most successful teams have continuity, a formula they follow, and a clear identity," said Porter at his introductory press conference in January. Portland's identity halfway through the season? If nothing else, it's levelheaded.
Chris Rifer, who writes the Morrison Report column for timbersarmy.org, says at the beginning of the season, all the even-keel talk struck him as little more than coach-speak. But now, he's warming up to it.
"I probably just brushed it aside," Rifer said after the Dallas win. "But to [Porter's] credit, the team's bought into that. He's been very consistent, and there've been a lot of draws that last year would've been losses."
It starts pre-game, when Porter says his job is to get the team to a mentality "right between confidence and anxiety, so there's a little bit of tension that gives them buzz." It ends in each post-game press conference, when Porter's face is consistently stoic—win, lose, or draw.
"They've bought into this vision of what we want to accomplish at the end of the year," he said on his way out of Saturday's presser. "If we slip one game, it could potentially derail our vision."