For Caleb Porter, there was nowhere to go but up with the Portland Timbers.
The team's new head coach took over a dismal squad from last year and appears on track to deliver on his promise when hired: the first-ever playoff spot for the city's Major League Soccer team.
But it's not just that Porter has overcome low expectations from past seasons (the Timbers, two-thirds of the way through their schedule, have already surpassed the performance of last year's team). It's that Porter has made waves in MLS with a high-possession, fast-attacking style of soccer.
The Timbers are ranked fourth out of 19 teams based on points per game. (Teams get three points for a win, one for a tie, and zero for a loss.)
But despite their ranking, the Timbers' playoff spot is far from secured.
That's because MLS is seeing one of its most competitive seasons in years. The league's top 10 teams are separated by just five points. And the Timbers are the equivalent of just one game away of falling out of playoff eligibility, and nine of their remaining 12 games are against teams fighting for the same postseason slots as Portland.
In order to help break down the Timbers' playoff chances, we've put together a list of three things the Timbers need to continue doing well—and the three things that haunt their playoff hopes.
The meltdowns of the Timbers' past often came when the team gave up late-game goals.
Not this year. The Timbers will need to keep up their tenacious attitude throughout the remaining matches. And much of this new resolve comes from the Timbers' captain, midfielder Will Johnson.
Johnson came to Portland this year from Real Salt Lake, and the fierce, physical style and relentless play (making him unpopular here before this season) has paid off for the Timbers.
"[Will] demands a lot from himself and from his teammates," says Bob Kellett of the podcast 5 Minutes to Kickoff. "We've seen throughout the season that when the team is facing adversity he has an ability to step up his game and bring the other players to his level."
Porter has proven to have a keen eye for positioning players in unexpected ways and recognizing talents that have been overlooked.
Timbers veteran and midfielder Jack Jewsbury had been talked down a bit last season by interim coach Gavin Wilkinson, and he was not a sure thing to return.
But Porter has shifted Jewsbury to the back line, where his experience and coolheaded play have helped fix a leaky defense.
An even better example is Rodney Wallace, a former defender and infrequent starter who had an uneven performance the past two years. Porter moved Wallace to left wing, where he's scored four goals and made five assists.
"Even Porter was unsure of where to put Wallace at the start of the year," says William Conwell of Stumptown Footy. "But once the spot for Wallace was found, he grabbed hold of it and has not let go."
Porter must keep finding players adept at different playing styles, especially as he continues to make changes on the back line.
Last season, Portland fans howled when the team swapped goalkeepers in a trade with the Montreal Impact. The Timbers' keeper, Troy Perkins, seemed one of the few players who performed well last season.
And trading him for Impact goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, whose performance had been uneven and who faced injuries last year, didn't seem to make much sense.
Fast forward to today. Ricketts, the Jamaican national player, is a revelation.
When the Timbers' defense rapidly deteriorated due to injuries—particularly those to Mikael Silvestre and David Horst—Ricketts was the difference, keeping the Timbers in the game when the back line looked beaten down.
Ricketts is in essentially a tie as the top-ranked goalkeeper in the league for goals scored against him. (Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando has a .01 goals-against advantage.) Ricketts is tied for No. 1 in the league for shutouts (nine).
His speed and agility seem to exceed a keeper of his size, and thanks to his key blocks, fans nationwide have eight times voted in Ricketts for the MLS Save of the Week Award.
The Timbers' weaknesses, such as they are, don't look that large compared to the fiascoes of last season. But they do exist.
The team has compiled two remarkable stats this season. First, the Timbers have lost the fewest matches—three—of any MLS team.
From March to July, the Timbers had a remarkable 15-game unbeaten streak. Any team with that kind of record should be running the board, not facing an uncertain playoff picture.
But seven of the games in that streak were draws. Yes, the one point certainly helps. But Portland had more ties than any team in the league, and conversely the fewest victories of any team now in playoff contention.
While that helps the team's standing (soccer is one of the few sports in which a team is rewarded for a tie), it's also created a middling sense of the team's ability to grab wins when needed. If only three of those ties had been wins, the Timbers would be the top team in the league.
The Timbers are also starting to show an inability to finish off great chances. They've already scored 32 goals, nearly as many as they scored all of last season (and there are 12 games left in this one).
Credit the quick delivery and near magical ball control of attacking midfielder Diego Valeri, a centerpiece in Porter's system of fast, frequent passes, who has created some truly awe-inspiring setups.
Still, despite these amazing chances, the Timbers' attacking forwards seem to struggle to get them consistently into the back of the net.
The Timbers' 2-1 road loss to the San Jose Earthquakes had one such game-defining moment. Valeri flicked the ball to Will Johnson, who went one-on-one with Earthquakes keeper Jon Busch. Johnson fired—straight into Busch's arms.
"The games that the Timbers have lost this season have not been a result of a lack of scoring opportunities but rather an inability to convert their opportunities," says Kellett of 5 Minutes to Kickoff. "[The team] will need more production from its forwards, and hope that the goal-scoring committee can convert its chances when they arise."
The biggest challenge: The secrets behind the team's success are out.
The coach's brand of play—nicknamed "Porterball," a moniker Porter himself doesn't care for—runs counter to the typical MLS style of long balls and counterattacks. (Long balls involve players punching the ball up the field hoping it lands somewhere useful. Counterattacking is when one side endures long stretches of possession by the other team with hopes of catching the opponent flatfooted for a breakaway—often with long balls.)
In the season's first half, the Timbers' new style confounded a lot of teams that couldn't figure out how to adapt to it.
But everyone in MLS has taken a long look at Porterball, and some teams have cracked the code. They include two teams that have beaten Portland—San Jose and Columbus—and, most recently, the Vancouver Whitecaps, who got out of Jeld-Wen Field on Aug. 3 with a 1-1 tie.
While creative plays from Valeri are now the norm, the Whitecaps seemed to have no problem shutting him down in the center, where he sets off the short-pass barrage that's key to Porter's strategy. (Valeri did get the Timbers' lone assist, on a long cross to Ryan Johnson.) Vancouver seemed to anticipate Portland's moves and—along with a chippy, rough response in a game choked with fouls—disrupted the Timbers' momentum.
If the Timbers can't adjust and adapt Porterball, they could stall in the home stretch—the part of the season, as Porter recently said, that separates winners from losers.
Geoff Gibson is the former managing editor of StumptownFooty.com.