Timbers seek to reclaim 'underdog mentality'
During the past two-plus months, the Portland Timbers have received a first-class education in the workings of MLS. The tides of battle can lift a club up so high the stars are within reach and, in the next moment, throw that club against jagged rocks.
Portland has felt some of those ups and downs. The Timbers won five of eight matches, with two draws. Now they are on a two-game losing streak. The most recent setback was 1-0 last week at Chivas USA.
The upcoming schedule doesn't look helpful for a club hitting a rough patch. While Portland has two home matches, they are Saturday against MLS Cup champion Colorado (4-3-7, 19 points), which humbled the Timbers 3-1 in the season opener, and MLS powerhouse New York (4-2-7, 19 points) on Sunday, June 19. After that, Portland will go on the road - where it has not won - to face FC Dallas (4-4-4, 16 points) on Saturday, June 25.
The Timbers (5-5-2, 17 points) are 12 games into a 34-game regular season, and they don't call the next short stretch a defining moment.
'It's too early to say that,' coach John Spencer says.
But unless they win and win quickly, they may be looking at a landslide that could wash away their early momentum.
'We're disappointed that we've lost the last two games,' Spencer says. 'If we have three or four losing streaks and it's only two games at the time, then we'll be in good shape. If it's a 10-game losing streak, then that's a problem.
'We need to make sure that the losing streak ends, and ends this weekend against Colorado.'
The two-match skid could have been worse, too. The Timbers easily could have lost three home games they won, all 1-0, against Real Salt Lake (which played with less than half of its regular starting roster), the Philadelphia Union and the Columbus Crew.
'We were pretty fortunate to pick up the two wins, against Columbus and Philadelphia,' Spencer says.
To get back on track, Spencer wants the Timbers to return to the mentality they had when they were winning.
'That underdog mentality,' he says.
That mindset can't last just three or four weeks, either.
'That doesn't make a good season or a good career,' he says.
What may make coming out of the losing streak more difficult is that the magic of Jeld-Wen Field was at least temporarily broken two weeks ago, when Portland lost 3-2 to D.C. United.
Goalkeeper Troy Perkins says the Timbers had a good laugh after the loss. It came when Spencer asked his players to raise their hands if they had really thought the club would go undefeated at home this season.
'I'm a veteran; I know that's not going to happen,' Perkins says. 'This is a funky league. Anything can happen wherever you go. And people want to win here because of the environment we have. There's a bit of a jealousy.'
At the beginning of the Timbers' two-game skid, striker Kenny Cooper had an on-field spat that involved midfielder Jack Jewsbury and Spencer. Cooper argued with those two over who should take a third penalty kick, after Cooper's first two attempts were blocked by the D.C. United goalkeeper.
Cooper credits Jewsbury's leadership in healing the Timbers after the incident.
'I have a ton of respect for him. I wish I would've showed it more on the day,' Cooper says.
Jewsbury says it's all part of his role as team captain.
'Anytime you see maybe people try to start a fire amongst the guys, that's something I've got to be aware of,' Jewsbury says. 'With this team at the end of the day, we're not going to have issues in the locker room. We're a tight group. Everybody wants to fight for each other, and that's important.'
For the Timbers to start winning again, they will have to play well on both sides of the pitch, from the opening whistle.
'The last two or three games, we haven't started well at home,' Spencer says.
The coach says things have gotten tougher for some of his players.
'A couple of young guys looked like they had just hit a brick wall (at Chivas),' Spencer says. 'We've got Darlington (Ngabe), Sal (Zizzo) and Kalif (Alhassan), who were getting good press (publicity) at the start of the year, but you're not a surprise anymore. People are looking at them, saying, 'OK, if I give them time and space on the ball, they can hurt me.' So now they're coming tighter. They're playing more physical. They're watching for you. Now, can you take that extra step to the next level and raise your game? That's the big challenge for us all.'
The two goals Portland has scored in its last two matches are slightly deceiving. One came on Jewsbury's PK, and the other was Jorge Perlaza's garbage-time score, both against D.C. United.
Spencer puts the onus on every position in the lineup.
'We can do a better job with our movement off the ball, we can do a better job with our service to our forwards and our forwards can do a better job of holding the ball up,' he says. 'It's not a difficult game. It's not a real scientific game. If you've got good movement and you create separation between yourself and the defender, you just hold the ball up, play simple, play what you see and then move again.'
The Timbers have allowed four goals in the past two games, a stat that led Perkins to request of the club's back line: 'Don't make me make so many saves.'
Adds Perkins: 'I would be happy to just stand there for 90 minutes. We've just got to get back to being tight and being there for each other. The couple of games that we were really on fire at home, everyone was working, everyone was defending, and we were all there to do the same job.'
Spencer looks at the challenge of stopping a slide as a test of the mental fortitude a club must have to be successful.
'On any given day,' he says, 'any team can be the best team in the league and also be the worst team in the league.'