By the time the Portland Timbers won the MLS Cup last winter, there was a feeling of inevitability about it all. Not because the Timbers spent much time at the top of the standings -- they hadn't. Not because the Timbers had the best player-for-player roster either -- they didn't.
It just sort of felt like destiny. That was the only way coach Caleb Porter was able to explain some of the moments that led Portland to the trophy. The Timbers found their form as they entered the playoffs, with the help of a masterstroke formation shift from Porter, but things just clicked in an uncanny way. Like when a Kansas City penalty kick went off two posts and bounced out in a dramatic 11-round shootout in the playoffs, Porter said it had to be a higher power.
But the soccer gods can be fickle. Whether it's fate, bad luck or the hangover of having just won the trophy, 2016 has been bumpy for the Timbers, who sit barely within playoff position. Now, they face the Seattle Sounders in a big rivalry game on Sunday (9:30 p.m. ET on FS1) and it comes just as the Sounders have found their footing, courtesy of newcomer Nicolas Lodiero.
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For a Portland team that has turned into a revolving door of injuries with an abysmal road record and defensive struggles, the question starts to emerge: Why is a team that just won the MLS Cup having so much trouble as they seek a repeat?
To hear Porter tell it, his team is just as hungry as ever and the MLS Cup win hasn't allowed any complacency to creep into the group. Their hearts may be in it, but for the core players, their run to the MLS Cup may have created a physical uphill battle to climb. Because they lasted to the MLS Cup, the Timbers' offseason this year was six weeks shorter than the teams that hadn't made the 2015 playoffs. They finished their season in December, rather than October, with preaseason starting in February.
Whether it's due to the shorter offseason recovery or just bad luck, the Timbers have been decimated by injury this year. By the time they were 11 games into the season, they had already racked up injuries to 11 players, nine of them usual starters. Now, more than two-thirds through the season, the injuries have barely let up.
Many of those injuries have happened to defenders, which has left the Portland back line in constant flux. Captain Liam Ridgewell, a centerback, and right back Alvas Powell have been in and out throughout the season, centerback Nat Borchers suffered a season-ending injury three weeks ago and Zarek Valentin was the latest defender to be sidelined earlier this month with a return date unclear. The Timbers, desperate for stability, signed three new defenders in the transfer window, Steven Taylor, Vytas Andriuskevicius and Gbenga Arokoyo, but defensive cohesion can take time to develop.
That's a problem because when the Timbers won the MLS Cup, a big part of their success was in defense. They led the league in clean sheets last year and did it even as goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey made fewer saves than the next seven goalkeepers on the clean sheets list -- that suggests they allowed few goals because of a strong defense, not spectacular goalkeeping. But this year, the Timbers are tied for the second-most goals conceded in the Western Conference and it took them 15 games just to earn their first clean sheet.
In some ways, the Timbers' problems this season started as soon as they won the MLS Cup. Because the Timbers performed so well, they had to pay a bunch of their players win bonuses, which counted against the team's 2016 salary cap. That problem was only exacerbated when the salary cap for 2016 wasn't raised as much as teams expected and Portland missed out on allocation money given to poor-performing teams. Winning the MLS Cup, combined with the result of the new collective bargaining agreement, meant less money than expected for the Timbers to sign new players or even keep the championship-winning players they had.
The most damaging effect of that was the loss of defender Jorge Villafana, who was easily one of the best left backs in MLS last year. Considered by many to be national team-caliber despite Jurgen Klinsmann's lack of interest, Villafana played a key role in helping secure the MLS Cup. But when Portland transferred him to Santos Laguna, Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson called it "necessary in order for the club to acquire allocation dollars" that would allow them to try to keep their roster intact.
That move caused a bit of a ripple effect. Villafana's replacement was supposed to be newcomer Chris Klute, but he spent the first month of the 2016 injured just as the Timbers back line injuries began. A steady preferred defensive four has been elusive ever since. The injuries have been spread all over the field and forced difficult lineup choices, but it's been most damaging on defense.
If there is something to the theory that a short preseason and fatigue have contributed to the constant stream of injuries, it may be worth looking at the same theory in comparing how the Timbers did on the road last year to this year. They had the second-best road record in the league last year, going 7-8-2, but so far this year, they are at 0-6-6. Travel is a grind in MLS -- one of the most common challenges cited by players who come over from Europe is the long travel, which can see teams go across four time zones. For the Timbers, the miles may be catching up with them.
Portland are dangerously close to the red line in the standings and in need of some momentum, which an away-and-home series against bitter rival Seattle could give them. Seattle has looked the best they have all season lately, but if the Timbers can notch another win in the Cascadia Cup rivalry, it could be a huge boost. As Porter put it earlier this year: "It just feels better when you beat Seattle."
Sunday could be the turning point, since a bit of a nudge may be enough to get this Timbers team rolling, assuming they aren't hit with more bad luck. As 2015 proved, as long as the Timbers can find their way into the playoffs, anything can happen. Just like last year, they can find their form and make a run for the MLS Cup, even if their regular season wasn't perfect. A win over the Sounders may just win back the favor of the soccer gods.
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