Missing MLS playoffs a disappointment, but returning talent has players excited for 2012
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Michelle Garcia reacts to a yellow card given to one of the Portland Timbers during a home match with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Two months before the Portland Timbers kicked off their inaugural MLS season, coach John Spencer said he had "a new team" - and that he wasn't going to refer to it as "expansion team."

"I don't want to make a big deal about this, and it may come back to haunt me, but good players can play anywhere,' he told the Tribune.

Although at times the Timbers did look like an expansion team during the 34-game season, the bulk of the year brought Spencer's words to pass.

Portland finished 11-14-9, with 42 points, and missed the 10th and final playoff spot in the 18-team league by four or five points.

'When you give the guys an excuse, they can always fall back on it,' Spencer says, explaining why he never wanted to use the term expansion team. 'I said from Day One, 'We're going to try to make the playoffs.' For an expansion team, for a new team, whatever you want to call us, we had a great run.

"It could've been a fantastic run if we had gotten to the playoffs.'

The Timbers had players that by and large no one else in the league wanted. The mix of veterans with leadership capabilities and young players with a world of talent worked for a team with a big home-field advantage due to sellouts at Jeld-Wen Field.

'There's a great mix of veteran players and young players,' striker Kenny Cooper said after the team's finale, a 1-1 draw Saturday at Real Salt Lake. 'You look at (midfielder) Jack (Jewsbury) and (goalkeeper) Troy (Perkins) there we have two fantastic leaders. And then you look at a guy like (midfielder/striker) Darlington Nagbe, who is an incredible talent, and (midfielder) Kalif Alhassan ... that's just to name a few of the guys. The team is full of quality and great talent.'

Portland came into the league at the same time as the Vancouver Whitecaps, who tied New England for the worst record (6-18-10, 28 points).

'It was a little bit tougher for us and Vancouver because we had a double expansion draft,' Spencer says. 'It's not an excuse, it's a reality.'

After struggling through their first few matches on the road, the Timbers proved their dominance at Jeld-Wen, winning their first five at home. Portland finished with a 9-5-3 record in the remodeled stadium.

'We gave the people paying here some memorable nights,' Spencer says.

It was the Timbers' road record (2-9-6) that showcased their youth and inexperience.

'Getting just the two wins put a lot of pressure on us here at home to get three points every time out,' Jewsbury said. 'Even though we did a great job and the support was unbelievable, we've got to be a bit better and a bit more consistent on the road.'

By the end of the season, though, the Timbers had matured to where they were competitive away from Jeld-Wen Field. From September on, the Timbers went 1-1-3 on the road, including the draw at Real Salt Lake on 'Futty' Danso's goal in stoppage time.

'If you look at the difference in mentality, and our strength and character from our first half of the season on the road to the second half of the season on the road, we were a different group,' Spencer says. 'We dug deep in certain games. That game that we tied in Salt Lake, we'd probably lose that 2- or 3-nil earlier in the season. Collectively, now we're a stronger group. The guys, second half of the year, really came through on the road for us.'

It is easy to sit back at the end of the season and point to all of the lost opportunities along the way. The Timbers can look at the seven matches they lost by one goal, and how they blew a lead in many of them.

'We had the points in the bag and we let them go away, conceding late goals,' Spencer says.

With the exception of blowout losses of 4-0 to F.C. Dallas and 3-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Timbers were in most every game.

'The biggest positive is that in a tough league, if you look at most of the teams that are in the playoffs, there's just a few who beat us both home and away,' Jewsbury says. 'And of those 10 teams, we stood up against some of the best competition in this league, whether it was here or away, and played some great soccer.'

The Timbers will spend the next few weeks in Portland, continuing to train to make sure the players do not have too long of a layoff before workouts resume for the 2012 season.

'I don't think it's helping us build on anything for next year,' Spencer says. 'The season's ended too early for us. And if you finish up now, by the time you start late in January, it's just too long of a break.'

Cooper says he wasn't surprised that the Timbers stayed in the playoff race until the final week of the season.

'I'm not sure anything surprises me in soccer,' he says. 'This team is so talented. I have so much confidence in the group we have. You saw so much quality in so many players throughout the season.'

Spencer says the 2011 season was good, bordering on tremendous.

'The law of averages tell you (making the playoffs) is not simple to do,' he says. 'A lot of other expansion teams did not make it in their first year. If you had told us at the start of 2011 that we would've gotten 42 points and 11 wins in our first year, we would've taken it all day long.

'We're disappointed that we never got to the playoffs, but there are going to be plenty of other chances."

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