Wiebe: Are Portland Timbers an MLS elite team? Let's investigate their case

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Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri - Portland Timbers - celebration

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When Merritt Paulson speaks his mind, people tend to listen – and, love him or hate him, his opinions almost always garner a response.

So it was only natural that when the Portland Timbers and Thorns owner stumped for a little more R-E-S-P-E-C-T for his MLS club ahead of the Western Conference Championship series against Sporting Kansas City, it made headlines.

Here’s the pull quote, in case you missed it.

“It bothers me that over the last six years the Timbers have been to the Conference finals three times,” Paulson said on the “Max and Herc” podcast. “Three of the last six years, and yet you don’t hear Portland get talked about consistently in the same way you do Seattle, as an elite team. And we had a lot of analysts suggesting that after winning the West [in the regular season] last year, we wouldn’t make the playoffs this year.”

We now know that it’s not just three conference finals in six seasons but two MLS Cup appearances in four for the Timbers, same as the Sounders and Toronto FC, in case you’re counting. But does that make them elite? And what makes a club elite in MLS terms anyway?

Because I’m pedantic about this sort of thing, I’ve created five categories on which to judge whether an MLS club is, in fact, elite. They are: market relevance, playing squad, style of play, regular-season success and trophies.

Land inside my top five, and you get a gold star. Get gold stars in three or more categories, and you’ve earned the coveted “elite” label. Your treatise explaining why your team is elite goes in the trash the comment section. Let’s do this.

Market relevance

Basically, do people care? Is there a committed, vibrant and varied group of supporters? Have those supporters cultivated a distinct culture? Does the local media cover the club in numbers and in depth? Does the club attract sponsorship? Are those sponsors actively engaged?

This is a tap-in for the Timbers. People in Portland most definitely care. The club checks all the boxes, and then some.

Timbers Army might just create MLS’s best home environment between the nonstop singing, jaw-dropping tifo and epic goal celebrations. The culture they’ve created is all their own. Portland’s season-ticket wait list is sponsored. They’ve got more supporters than they can accommodate, thus the expansion of Providence Park.

Media coverage? Among the most comprehensive in MLS. Engaged sponsors? They’ve got them.

Verdict: Elite (1 star)

Top 5, in alphabetical order: Atlanta United, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Sporting KC, Toronto FC

Squad

Almiron and Martinez headline Atlanta’s potent squad. | USA Today Images

Does the club have bonafide stars who earn league recognition? Does ownership spend money on transfer fees and Designated Player salaries? Is there quality depth that can step in when injury or a drop in form strikes? Does the academy produce first-team players? Do young players develop in the system? Are other teams, domestically or abroad, interested in your players?

This is an inexact science, so I turned to ESPN’s Taylor Twellman, who is in the studio to join us on MLS Cup Central, to rank his top 5. Here’s what he came up with…

  1. Atlanta United
  2. Toronto FC
  3. Seattle Sounders
  4. LAFC
  5. NYCFC

Disagree? Take it up with him on Twitter.

Verdict: Not elite

Style of play

In Bobby Warshaw’s words, “Elite teams have the obligation to entertain their fans as well as win. It’s not enough to survive. They need to play a style that demonstrates their status, inspires fans, and speaks to the notion that soccer can be a beautiful game.”

Below is how Bobby’s top five shakes out. I limited him to this year and this year only.

  1. LAFC
  2. Sporting KC
  3. Columbus Crew SC
  4. Atlanta United
  5. Philadelphia Union

Feel free to disagree with him, as I did by replacing the Union (his choice, played pretty despite the talent gap) with the Red Bulls (my choice, beauty is in the eye of the beholder).

Verdict: Not elite

My Top 5: LAFC, Sporting KC, Columbus Crew SC, Atlanta United, New York Red Bulls

Regular-season success

Let’s measure this one analytically. In other words, who has the most regular-season points in the past five years? For what it’s worth, that’s the period I chose because Ben Baer already did the math and it’s a nice, round number.

  • 347 – New York Red Bulls
  • 327 – Seattle Sounders
  • 321 – FC Dallas
  • 316 – Sporting Kansas City
  • 310 – Portland Timbers

Verdict: Elite

Trophies

Toronto FC get ready to hoist MLS Cup in 2017. | USA Today Images

Again, this is a numbers game. Here’s the trophy count since the Timbers entered MLS in 2011, including MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, U.S. Open Cup and the Canadian Championship.

  • 7 – Toronto FC (1 MLS Cup, 1 Shield, 5 CanChamp)
  • 4 – LA Galaxy (3 MLS Cup, 1 Shield)
  • 4 – Seattle Sounders (1 MLS Cup, 1 Shield, 2 USOC)
  • 4 – Sporting KC (1 MLS Cup, 3 USOC)
  • 3 – New York Red Bulls (3 Shield)
  • 2 – FC Dallas (1 Shield, 1 USOC)
  • 2 – Montreal Impact (2 CanChamp)
  • 1 – Portland Timbers (MLS Cup)
  • 1 – San Jose Earthquakes (Shield)
  • 1 – D.C. United (USOC)
  • 1 – Houston Dynamo (USOC)
  • 1 – Vancouver Whitecaps (CanChamp)

Verdict: Not elite … but joining the Galaxy as the only multi-MLS Cup winners since 2011 would change the math

Top 5, in order of trophies: Toronto FC, LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Sporting KC, New York Red Bulls

So … are the Timbers a member of the MLS elite?

By my system, with two gold stars, not quite. But that could all change with a win on Saturday in MLS Cup (8 pm ET | FOX, UniMás, TSN, TVAS). Two titles would still land them outside the top five, but I would make an exception for two MLS Cup wins in four years. Win and they’re in.

In case you’re curious, here’s who did earn “elite” status per my system:

  • Seattle Sounders 
  • Sporting KC 
  • Atlanta United 
  • Toronto FC
  • New York Red Bulls 

Seems about right, if I do say so myself.

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