FANENDO ADI didn't look the least bit jetlagged on May 17 at Providence Park. He was bright, alert, energetic, and even flashed something that's been missing around the Portland Timbers' locker room of late—teeth.
Forty-eight hours or so earlier, Adi had flown into PDX from Copenhagen, on loan from a Danish club. He joined his new teammates the next morning, and two minutes after stepping into his first Major League Soccer match, Adi touched the ball for the first time—a deft header that assisted Portland's dramatic game-tying goal against a shorthanded and struggling Columbus Crew side.
"Normally," Adi says, smilng, "it's a goal on my first touch."
He was joking (I think), the only man in the near-empty locker room who even attempted a playful tone.
Yes, snickers have been scarce, even when Portland rallies and salvages results from what looks like certain defeat. Grins? Gone. Not even after the Timbers played down a man for nearly 56 minutes versus the Columbus Crew, came back twice, and got exactly what they hoped for from Adi—a 6'4" Nigerian striker who instructed new teammates to "cover up for me" before helping Portland land yet another face-saving draw. Nope, these days, even when the Timbers crack a joke, they look annoyed: Like when captain Will Johnson went on TV after the Columbus game and—despite the announcer's best attempts to affirm the Timbers and their "magical resolve"—grimaced back expletives and revealed a whole new species to describe his club.
"We've got the heart of a lion," Johnson said, "but the brain of a goldfish at times."
Winning has, indeed, been a completely different animal for Portland—a 22-legged dichotomy as dramatic as its late-match heroics. The surprise of 2013 is MLS' biggest underachiever in '14. The Timbers are crisp and precise in long stretches, only to yield goals on simple blunders. They've meandered around the bottom of the Western Conference for weeks, but as coach Caleb Porter said after the Columbus draw, "I guarantee you there's no team in the league that wants to face us—and it's for good reason."
Portland has only won once—but is unbeaten in four straight. Its leading scorers a year ago—midfielders Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe—are off to slower starts (statistically, at least) this season, but are "still confident," according to Valeri. ("Guys on the team know how good we are, just the results haven't shown," Nagbe says.) The Timbers have allowed 19 goals in 11 games and have no shutouts, but their penchant for finding the net in the waning minutes (and final seconds) of matches shows they're as unpredictable as you might imagine a goldfish-brained lion heart to be—especially when backed into a corner. But can they be... as dangerous?
It certainly appears to be in their nature.
"We're not nervous," says midfielder Ben Zemanski. "We know we have the talent in this locker room and the camaraderie of the guys that we're not going to buckle when we're down a goal late or at the bottom of the standings."