Even when his team was struggling to produce consistent results, and questions were beginning to surface about the job he had been doing, Caleb Porter never lost faith. He believed in what his Portland Timbers were doing, and even when he was asked about how things were going shortly before the Timbers faced Real Salt Lake in mid-October, Porter had one clear message.
Don't bet against his Portland Timbers.
Porter's Timbers have been a good team to bet on since that road win at Real Salt Lake, putting together an eight-match unbeaten streak that has seen the Timbers attack start to click and defense start to play up to its full potential. Darlington Nagbe has blossomed playing in a central role, and the Timbers have transformed into road warriors, compiling a 4-0-1 record in their past five road matches.
On Sunday, the Timbers faced the stiff challenge of going on the road and standing toe-to-toe with FC Dallas, which had posted the best home record in the league this year. The Timbers handled the job with poise and purpose, scoring the first goal of the night and frustrating FC Dallas' attack for two-thirds of the match before a desperate late surge helped give the home team some life
"It's not the way we scripted it, that's for sure, but we knew they'd throw everything at us and they did," Porter said of FC Dallas' late push. "Credit to them, they got two goals, but credit to our guys for weathering the storm and buckling down. A lot of teams would have given up the next goal and we didn't. Then for us to put the game away with that last goal says everything about this group."
The Timbers rewarded Porter's faith in his team, and his decision to insert Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace back into the starting lineup even after Portland's 3-1 first-leg victory. Valeri slid right back in and showed his quality, setting up both goals and doing his part defensively to help pester FC Dallas' playmakers.
There is definitely an underdog feel to the Timbers, even though they finished the season tied for the third-most points in the league, and even though they entered the playoffs with momentum after winning four of their final five regular season matches.
Portland became a bit of a forgotten team after its struggles in 2014, which saw them miss the playoffs (by a point) and manage just five wins in 17 matches at home, where the Timbers have one of the best atmospheres in the league. It mattered little that the Timbers scored the third-most goals in the league in 2014, the season was seen as a failure, especially after the Timbers came within a game of reaching the MLS Cup in 2013, only to lose to Real Salt Lake.
The 2015 season was shaping up to be another frustrating one for the Timbers. Though they were among the league's best at creating chances, they weren't finishing them, and the results were mixed. Something clicked in October though, as Porter's formation switch helped Fanendo Adi find his goal-scoring form and helped Nagbe emerge as one of the league's best playmakers.
Perhaps it was fitting that the Timbers' current eight-match unbeaten run started against Real Salt Lake, the same team that ended their title hopes two seasons ago. Two years later, the Timbers are a more mature team, a stronger team, and Porter has acknowledged that the past two years in MLS have taught him plenty.
The result is a place in the 2015 MLS Cup final. The Timbers will probably be an underdog in the final as well, but that isn't likely to matter to them, or to Porter, who has never stopped believing his team could do something special this season.
"We want the biggest trophy, and we still have 90 minutes to play," Porter said after Sunday's match. "We'll celebrate this. I'll try to enjoy it, but I'm already thinking about the next game. We want to take care of business in that last one. That's the most important one."