PORTLAND — Year Three in Major League Soccer was a charmed one for the Portland Timbers.
Not only did the team make the playoffs for the first time, they finished atop the Western Conference in the regular season, then vanquished rival Seattle in the playoffs before falling short in the Western Conference finals.
First-year coach Caleb Porter won the MLS coach of the year award, midfielder Diego Valeri was named MLS newcomer of the year, and the Timbers got plenty of love from the soccer media near and far.
Could Year Four, which begins on Saturday when Philadelphia visits the rebranded Providence Park, top that?
“It’s time to become an elite team in Major League Soccer, and to do that you have to perform year after year,” Timbers captain Will Johnson said.
Last year, with a significantly revamped roster and a first-year coach, the Timbers lost only five of 34 regular-season games.
This year they won’t be a curiosity — they will be a prime target for hungry opponents.
“We’ve got a bull’s eye on our back,” Johnson said. “So there are different pressures than there were last year, but it just goes back to us and performing and doing what we did last year and building on that foundation.”
Valeri said the expectations create a healthy type of pressure.
“For us the pressure is inside the locker room,” he said. “We want a trophy and for that we have to work hard and we have to give 100 percent.”
Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson added to the roster by signing a couple more veteran Argentines. Gastón Fernández can play any of the forward spots and adds a dynamic attacker to the lineup. Norberto Paparatto is a central defender, who at 6-foot-4 brings both size and experience to the middle of the defense.
Pa Modou Kah, who will start at central defender alongside Paparatto, said the partnership is strong despite the language barrier. Paparatto and Fernández are only beginning to learn English.
“Football is a universal language and Papa has been a professional for a long time,” Kah said. “When you play defense, the communication is quite simple.
On that level we’ve developed a chemistry.”
Porter is fond of saying that the Timbers are every man on the roster, not only the prominent players, and the roster appears deeper entering this season.
In addition to the new Argentines, the Timbers addressed depth by adding young attackers and left-side midfielder/defender Jorge Villafana. And through the MLS version of free agency Portland acquired Steve Zakuani, a left-side attacker who was developing into a star in Seattle until injuries the past two seasons.
But the core players who were the soul of last season’s surge — midfielders Johnson, Diego Chara, Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, defenders Kah, Jack Jewsbury, Michael Harrington and Futty Danso, and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts — are the reason most pundits list the Timbers among the championship contenders in 2014.
Nobody in the Timbers organization, from president Merritt Paulson on down, shies away from the goal of winning trophies every season. Yet this season starts with a starkly different narrative. Last season started with a roster of players motivated to prove themselves to a new coach who was motivated to prove he could win in MLS. In 2014, the dynamic is different.
Just like the sophomore slump some players experience, the Timbers must keep improving or risk falling backward, Johnson said.
“You can’t catch people by surprise anymore. Everybody knows about you.” Johnson said. “As a leader and captain of this team, I’ve got to make sure the guys are ultra-focused all the time.
We have the guys in the locker room to do that.”