Odd as it might seem, first-year Timbers coach Caleb Porter saw progress in a frustrating midweek result.
Blowing a one-goal lead with a one-man advantage Wednesday against Real Salt Lake, a back-and-forth spectacle that ended in a 3-3 tie, was an example of how the benchmark for success has changed in Portland. Porter’s team had actually come back from an earlier deficit against first-place RSL and was able to salvage a point in the standings.
In previous years, that might have been good enough.
Not in 2013.
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“The fact that we’re disappointed in these types of games I think says everything about our evolution and transformation of our club,” Porter said in a conference call Friday. “We’ve created a standard and expectation, and we’re disappointed when we don’t get three points.”
The Timbers are the most improved team in MLS this season heading into Sunday’s 7 p.m. game against Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field. Portland’s 1.63 points-per-game average is highest in the Western Conference (0.63 better than last year, the biggest jump in the league).
The Timbers’ three losses are by far the fewest in MLS, with the next-best team at seven defeats.
Consider Portland well on pace to satisfy its primary goal for this season: making the playoffs for the first time.
So what has changed?
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid gave credit to Porter, who made the leap to MLS last year after seven successful years with Akron University, and impactful signings. Midfield DP Diego Valeri, in particular, has been as good as anyone in the league recently with a goal and seven assists his past six games.
“They started off the season well and that gave them confidence,” Schmid said, “and once you have a little bit of confidence you can build from there.”
Porter said he’s been most pleased with his team’s competitiveness and consistency, which led to a 15-game unbeaten streak from March 16 to June 23, the longest in MLS this season. A shift to a more possession-oriented attack has allowed the Timbers to dictate games, even against the league’s best teams. Depth has helped overcome a rash of injuries in defense and midfield.
Portland is no longer an embarrassment on the road, going 2-2-8 this season. It’s a lot of ties, sure, but significantly better than its 3-21-10 combined mark from 2011-12.
Trending up, but not content.
“If you had told me we’d be 10 games out and sitting on 39 points, in second place, I would’ve taken it,” said Porter, “but we’re not there yet. We need to finish strong. We need to continue to improve in areas where we’ve fallen short, and we need to continue to get points. Now it’s crunch time.”
• Mayor Mike McGinn has proclaimed Aug. 25 as Rave Green Sunday in anticipation of the big rivalry game. McGinn announced the news at Friday’s practice, where an estimated 2,500 were in attendance for Camper Appreciation Day.
• Osvaldo Alonso (leg), Obafemi Martins (ankle) and Djimi Traore (ankle) practiced Friday, and Schmid said he expects all three will be able to contribute Sunday.
• Portland midfielder Diego Chara earned his fifth yellow card of the season Wednesday vs. RSL and will be suspended.
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org