Let’s start with the bright spots from the Portland Timbers second season in Major League Soccer:
• David Horst got healthy and established himself as one of the most competitive and committed Timbers, while becoming a consistent presence in the middle of the Timbers defense.
• After battling injuries and the resulting fitness challenges, Frank Songo’o showed off some of his Barcelona-trained talent.
• Bright Dike — he of the Achilles injury at the start of 2011 and the loan to a semi-pro team early this season — made a significant impact down the stretch by replacing designated player Kris Boyd and scoring five goals.
• And, of course, the Cascadia Cup — which the Timbers won by taking advantage of a schedule that had them playing four of six matches at home.
There you have it. Four sentences to make Timbers fans smile.
The list of dark moments would be significantly more extensive. But in assessing the state of the Portland Timbers at the end of their second Major League Soccer season, recounting the loss to amateur team Cal FC, the firing of head coach John Spencer, or the dismal record on the road seems like a waste of keystrokes.
Because as the 2012 Timbers season fades from memory — something that cannot happen soon enough for a passionate, restless fan base — its impact might not be fully understood for a few years.
Caleb Porter is due to take over as the Timbers second head coach in mid-December. Even as he tries to guide his Akron Zips to one more NCAA title, Porter has put his imprint on the Timbers. While opponents were trying to put the best possible lineups on the field against Portland, the Timbers in the second half of the season were in audition mode so that Porter would have some idea of what the roster needs.
When his hiring was announced, Porter was quoted as saying his focus would stay on his Akron team until its season ends. He has not spoken publicly about the Timbers, but general manager Gavin Wilkinson said he and Porter were in communication throughout the second half of this season.
It’s a safe bet that Porter won’t be the only new face when the Timbers convene training camp in mid-January. But Wilkinson said after Saturday’s season finale that it would be a mistake to gut the second youngest roster in MLS.
Porter, who coached Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe in college, figures to be looking for players who fit his possession-oriented style of play. Two years in to their MLS life, the Timbers could certainly improve depth everywhere (with the exception of goalkeeper). But positions that seem to need the most help are all four defensive spots along with those in the center of midfield.
One question in the forefront for fans is the fate of striker Kris Boyd. The designated player is signed through next season — presumably at another $1.5 million — and said on Saturday that he expects to be back in Portland for 2013 after he played only 45 minutes in the final 11 matches of 2011.
The fact that Portland got only eight goals (which led the team) from its highest-paid player certainly hampered their efforts to make a promised playoff appearance. But Boyd, like Kenny Cooper in 2011, is an easy target. There are many reasons the Timbers failed to improve from their expansion season.
One factor was the season-long injury battles for players who were expected to be dynamic pieces of the offense — Kalif Alhassan and Jose Adolfo Valencia. But injuries happen to every team, every year.
From the outset, Wilkinson has said the Timbers plan was to build a young, athletic roster. That approach might pay off down the road, but it is not the best formula for immediate success.
The Timbers were the second-youngest team in MLS this season based on the average age of its roster. By contrast, Vancouver Whitecaps FC — which entered MLS with Portland in 2011 — had the oldest roster this season, and made the playoffs.
Yes, 2012 was a season of disappointment for the Portland Timbers and their fans. But if that disappointment provides motivation for players such as Darlington Nagbe, Dike and Alhassan, perhaps 2012 won’t be forever remembered as a lost season.