Timbers convert to winning mind-set
As time passes, the 2018 Portland Timbers will be remembered as a team that climbed higher than most expected it could.
And in getting so close to the MLS summit, the club raised expectations.
"Now we have a taste of where we want to be next year again," coach Giovanni Savarese says. "God willing, with hard work hopefully we can do it again, but lift the cup."
The Timbers' first-year coach said that on Sunday at Portland International Airport, where a couple hundred fans gathered in the chill to express their support for the team that came up just short of a second championship in four seasons.
By the time the team landed in Portland, Savarese had rewatched his team lose 2-0 to Atlanta United in Saturday's MLS Cup final.
Asked what stood out to him, Savarese was succinct: "A lot of good things."
The Timbers matched up well with Atlanta, which seemed destined to win this title. By limiting United to nine shots — the fewest by a team playing at home in MLS Cup — Portland gave itself a shot. It just didn't convert.
"We played a good game. That's soccer. But we are very satisfied with what we gave in the field," midfielder Diego Valeri said.
Valeri said the MLS-record crowd of 73,019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the quality of the opponent made for a challenge but that the atmosphere wasn't the difference.
"It is not an easy field. They are a good team. They were very efficient in those moments when they got chances. This game is reduced to that," Valeri said.
Especially in the second half, when Portland became more assertive in midfield, Valeri said the Timbers showed they were capable of playing championship-level soccer.
"That's what we wanted," he said. "Disappointing result, but it was a long season, and at the end it was a good season."
It was a season of significant adjustment that included players learning, then embracing, new coach Savarese's way. The process started last December, when Darlington Nagbe was traded to Atlanta, and it included the midseason trade of proven striker Fanendo Adi to FC Cincinnati.
Savarese sent an early message by benching veteran defender Liam Ridgewell. To Ridgewell's credit, he put in the work, got himself healthy and became a vital cog in the Timbers' postseason success.
Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala evolved into one of the league's better center back pairings. And, the midseason acquisition of Jorge Villafana turned a problem position into a strength.
The Timbers, however, would not have gotten anywhere near the MLS Cup without the play of Diego Chara, Valeri and Sebastian Blanco. Blanco's breakout season — 10 goals and 11 assists in the regular season, then three goals in the playoffs — separated Portland from Western Conference rivals in the playoffs.
Still, to come so close to a championship and lose is tough to swallow.
"If we really look at ourselves in the mirror, we didn't do enough to win a cup final," goalkeeper Jeff Attinella said. "That hurts, because you never know when you're going to get back to these moments."
Attinella said what felt like a transition season morphed into more.
"It speaks a lot to the character we have here and the type of team we're going to be moving forward," he said.
The growth of Jeremy Ebobisse from third choice at best to starting striker was one of the big stories of the 2018 season. For Portland to be in the hunt for the cup again next season, the 21-year-old Ebobisse will need to continue his improvement, and at least some of the other younger Timbers — such as Andy Polo (24), Tomas Conechny (20) and Cristhian Paredes (20) — must show they can be more than fill-in or role players.
Ultimately, 2019 might be more of a transition year for Savarese and the Timbers. With Providence Park renovation, Portland is likely to play on the road for the first couple months — which could be both an early challenge and a great source of late-season momentum.
Roster renovation needs to include another productive forward to push Ebobisse and provide depth. Other priorities should include added depth in central defense and finding eventual replacements for the Diegos (Valeri and Chara will turn 33 next spring).
The MLS offseason is short — 2019 training camps open in about six weeks. Some roster decisions were due before the team plane landed in Portland on Sunday. And, the expansion draft for FC Cincinnati, which joins MLS in 2019, takes place Tuesday.