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Timbers aim higher in tough West

Goal is leap from 34 to 51 points as team eyes first postseason


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: MEG WILLIAMS - With a few more smoke bombs (and goals and wins) in 2013, the Portland Timbers could make the playoffs for the first time in their short MLS history.Since Major League Soccer came to Portland, the people of the Rose City have embraced the sport. The stadium has been sold out for every match; there is rarely a moment of silence with supporters cheering and chanting. Plenty of beer is consumed. The experience has been incredible.

The product on the field, however, has yet to live up to the experience. The Timbers narrowly missed the playoffs in their inaugural season of 2011, then took a giant leap backward in 2012, finishing next to last in the Western Conference with a record of 8-16-10, 34 points.

This season, under first-year head coach Caleb Porter, the Timbers are hell bent on being one of the top five teams in the Western Conference and making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Timbers technical director Gavin Wilkinson says the Portland’s goal is to earn 1.5 points per match — or a total of 51 points on the season.

“We have personal ambitions of averaging 1.5 points per game over the course of the season,” Wilkinson says. “You look at 51 points as the target that we’ve set for ourselves. That’s an ambitious target. That’s not saying that we’re going to make the playoffs. It’s healthy to set goals internally, and if you average 1.5 points per game you’ll find yourself having a very productive season.”

Eight teams in the Western Conference stand in Portland’s way.

“It is going to be a difficult conference,” Wilkinson says. “Every team has the ambition every year of improving. You ask 10 different people who is going to make the playoffs, you’re going to get 10 different combinations. For us as an organization, it’s a challenge. We’ve got to continue to improve as an organization

“But, you’ve got Real Salt Lake, you’ve got L.A. Galaxy, you’ve got Vancouver which did well last year, San Jose, which set the league on fire. All of those teams are probably looking at themselves and saying, ‘We’re going to make the playoffs again.’ Chivas has gone through a lot of change, and Dallas I would think are very happy with their squad, and I’ve not even talked about Colorado.

“We were on the outside looking in last year. The Western Conference is extremely difficult.”

With the 2013 season starting on Sunday with Portland playing host to the New York Red Bulls, here is a look at the clubs the Timbers will be competing again for the right to go to the playoffs:

San Jose

Last season, the San Jose Earthquakes caught fire and wound up with the best record in Major League Soccer (19-6-9, 66 points). The Earthquakes had a disappointing end to their season, though, losing to Los Angeles Galaxy in the conference semifinals.

The Earthquakes were led by star forward Chris Wondolowski, who tied the MLS record for goals in a season with 27 and was named the Volkswagen MLS Most Valuable Player. Earlier this year, Wondolowski became San Jose’s second-ever Designated Player.

The Earthquakes also had an unbelievable back line, with defenders Steven Beitashour, Ramiro Corrales and Justin Morrow all making the All-Star Game. All three players are back this season.

San Jose has as talented of a club as there is in MLS. The challenge will be to translate talent and regular-season performance into hardware.

Real Salt Lake

Real Salt Lake was second in the West last year with a 17-11-6 record (57 points). Salt Lake lost to Seattle in the conference semis.

Salt Lake got plenty of scoring from striker Ílvaro Saborío (team-high 17 goals), who is back this season. Midfielder Kyle Beckerman also returns, after making the All-Star Game.

RSL is a perennial contender to win the MLS Cup. They are a bit like the New York Yankees in that you always expect to see them in the postseason.

Seattle

The Sounders (also known as the Timbers’ most bitter and hated rival) took third in the West (15-8-11, 56 points). They made a deep run in the playoffs, reaching the conference championship round before falling to the Galaxy.

The Sounders are returning midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and striker Eddie Johnson, both All-Stars last season. Johnson led the Sounders with 14 goals. But Seattle is without Fredy Montero (13 goals), who is on loan to Millanarios of Colombia.

Los Angeles

The Galaxy were pedestrian during the 2012 regular season. With mountains of expectations upon them, they finished only fourth in the West at 16-12-6, 54 points. But then they made an improbable playoff run. After beating Vancouver, San Jose and Seattle, the Galaxy took home the MLS Cup by defeating Houston in the championship game.

It is possible that the loss of David Beckham could be addition by subtraction for the Galaxy. Beckham was getting on in years, and there was often tension between him and fellow L.A. star Landon Donovan.

Vancouver

The Whitecaps went 11-13-10 (43 points) and grabbed the fifth and final spot in the playoffs in the West last season.

Defender Jay DeMerit made the All-Star team and is back with the club. The Whitecaps also return the striking tandem of Darren Mattocks, who led the side with seven goals, and Camilo Sanvezzo, who had a team-high seven assists and five goals.

FC Dallas

Dallas narrowly missed the playoffs, coming in sixth place with a record of 9-13-12, 39 points.

Back for 2013 are striker Blas Perez, who led the club with nine goals, and midfielder David Ferreira, who had a team-best nine assists. During the offseason, Dallas acquired striker Kenny Cooper. The former Portland Timber went from a disappointing 2011 season to a stellar 2012 campaign in which he scored 18 goals for New York.

Colorado

The Rapids took seventh at 11-19-4, 37 points. They return striker Jaime Castrillon (team-high eight goals) and midfielder Martin Rivero (team-high eight assists).

Colorado will always be a very difficult place for visiting opponents because of the altitude.

Chivas USA

The only Western side with a worse record than the Timbers finished at 7-18-9, 30 points.

Chivas USA got terrific goalkeeping last season, with Dan Kennedy being named an All-Star en route to compiling 109 saves. Chivas did not get much scoring, though. Juan Pablo Angel led the team with just four goals, but he has returned to Colombia. Miller Bolanos was second on the club in goals with three and will be back for Chivas. Until the club makes dramatic improvements, though, it will always be the little brother (to the Galaxy) playing at the Home Depot Center.