Some 56 days after reaching the pinnacle of American soccer in Columbus, Ohio, Caleb Porter stood on the field at the Kino Sports Complex North Stadium decrying the performance of his MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers in their first preseason game of 2016.

The Timbers — using 22 players in total — had just lost 1-0 to their host FC Tucson, a semiprofessional club in the Premier Development League. The PDL is, unofficially, the fourth level of US club soccer behind MLS, the NASL, and the USL.

It wasn't a defeat that will bother anyone, and besides it being George Fochive's final game with the Timbers, it won't be remembered for anything. But it does mark the beginning of a new and daunting chapter in this club's young MLS history: a championship defense.


We know that winning back-to-back titles is hard in any sport, but it's especially hard in Major League Soccer. Since DC United won the first two league championships in 1996 and '97, only two teams — the 2007 Houston Dynamo and the 2012 LA Galaxy — have ever successfully defended championships.

Complacency is beyond understandable. Winning a Cup is a huge, huge thing. The glow that accompanies winning lasts — as well it should. This organization pushed for five years to be champions. Now that they are champions, the nature motivation becomes different and inherently more difficult.

Fatigue is understandable too. The Timbers either trained or played in every month in 2015, and they got less than two months off in between seasons.

Two seasons ago, defending champion Sporting Kansas City ran out of steam in the fall, limped into the playoffs, and lost the Wild Card game. The same thing happened to last year's defending champion LA. The Galaxy limped into the playoffs, and lost the Wild Card game on the road in Seattle.

But the challenges in MLS extend to a more concrete nature. There are serious monetary disadvantages that afflict the Cup-winner — notably, all the contract bonuses players received for winning the championship in 2015 have to be paid out of the 2016 cap.

That meant that the Timbers had less flexibility to play with in putting together the roster for this season, a circumstance which almost certainly contributed in some way to the departures of Maxi Urruti, Rodney Wallace, and Norberto Paparatto at a minimum.

That's not to mention the exposure the Timbers' run to MLS Cup gave the team's players. If the Timbers went one-and-done in the playoffs — if that Saad Abdul-Salaam penalty had hit the inside of the post and gone in instead of the inside of the other post and out — Jorge Villafaña would probably still be the solid, underrated, and rarely thought of Timbers fullback he was in the middle of last year.

But Villafaña's profile shot up during the Cup run. He caught the eye of Santos Laguna in Liga MX, and by the time he erased Columbus winger Ethan Finley in final, everyone in North American soccer knew his name.

Villafaña, of course, was sold for somewhere around one million dollars in the week following Portland's Cup win. Right now, that looks like a fairly modest price. Villafaña has made an excellent start to life in Mexico, and is about to be recruited to play for both the American and Mexican national teams.

Wallace too, despite a competitive offer to continue his career in Portland, has clinched for himself a move to be proud of. FC Arouca is by all measures the smallest professional club he's ever played for, but it is a club in Portugal's top flight. That door possibly doesn't open without Wallace's standout conclusion to last season.

Urruti's departure was unavoidable for several reasons. The money was one thing, but so was playing time — he wanted to be the main man somewhere, and with Fanendo Adi around, that somewhere wasn't going to be in Portland.

Another gut punch came yesterday, when news of George Fochive's transfer came down. The 23-year-old, who was a breakout performer in 2015, was sold to Viborg FF in Denmark's first division in a move that, according to Stumptown Footy, will net the Timbers around $100,000.

It was a move that will further Fochive's development, and help clear a logjam at the central midfield spot also occupied by Diego Chara, Jack Jewsbury, Ben Zemanski, Nick Besler, and, if need be, Ned Grabavoy.

Still, it hurts. The championship team of about two months ago has been chipped away at the edges. That isn't to say that the Timbers have had a bad offseason — they haven't — or that they haven't replaced the players they lost — they have.

It's just to say this: Villafaña was huge, to the point that Diego Valeri pinpointed successfully replacing him as the Timbers' key to defending their title at MLS Media Days. Wallace was huge too, and so was Urruti, and it was the contributions of these peripheral players that made all the difference in the world last year.

It's been a complaint of Merritt Paulson's this offseason — noted on Soccer Made in PDX — that the league makes it too hard to keep great teams together. He has a point — and MLS' exceedingly low cap may also contribute in a big way to the league's long struggle in the CONCACAF Champions League.

But as Paulson knows as well as anyone, the MLS great clubs like LA replenish and rework and rarely miss a beat. At least for the moment, total continuity isn't possible.

The Timbers should be good this year. They should be very good. They still have one of the best spines and best midfields in the league. But for a myriad of reasons, the deck is stacked against them repeating as champions.

This team is going to need to be knocked down. It's going to need to lose to get reinvigorated, to evolve, and to move forward. 2016 is going to be a fascinating year at Providence Park. It's going to reveal whether the Timbers' simply had an outstanding team, or whether they are an outstanding club beyond the scope of a single magical year.