Sunday marked the culmination of a nine-month quest to become champion of Major League Soccer.
During that period, we saw clubs attempt to claim the throne as the favorite to win MLS Cup, but many of them faded before the meaningful matches began.
When the postseason started, the clubs dubbed as the ones to beat failed to live up to the title. When the final whistle blew on MLS Cup at Mapfre Stadium on Sunday, the team that progressively picked up momentum near the end of the regular season and made a postseason drive in which it defeated three of the four best teams in the league came out on top.
The Portland Timbers didn't start the season strong like the New York Red Bulls or Vancouver Whitecaps. Nor did they peak at midseason like the LA Galaxy. They didn't even strike up a serious discussion about their MLS Cup credentials like rival Seattle, the Red Bulls or MLS Cup runner-up Columbus did at the conclusion of the regular season.
But one thing the Timbers excelled at over the nine-month journey to MLS Cup was adjusting and correcting their wrongs.
It took some time for the back four of Alvas Powell, Nat Borchers, Liam Ridgewell and Jorge Villafana to jell as a unit due to the addition of Borchers during the offseason. The Timbers recorded five clean sheets over the first three months of the season, but their results were also inconsistent as they let in 15 goals in the same span.
But once the back four began to click as a unit, Portland started to put together a nice string of results. The Timbers' best run of form during the regular season from May 27 to July 5, which saw the defense earn four clean sheets in seven matches while the club picked up 18 points.
The defensive unit may have experienced some struggles from July on, but the presence of the four in the starting lineup rarely changed. All four players featured in at least 37 matches on the road to the championship. They began to make noise in the Western Conference semifinal as they silenced the dangerous players in the Vancouver attack and they took over the spotlight following a strong performance at home in the first leg of the Western Conference Final.
Borchers, who was the club's prized offseason acquisition from Real Salt Lake, made the biggest stop of the season late in the second half of the second leg against FC Dallas. The sliding block from the bearded center back helped the Timbers secure a spot in MLS Cup. In the final, Villafana stepped into the role of top defender as he shut down Columbus' star winger Ethan Finlay. The entire back line held the dangerous Columbus attack to one shot on goal, which came off a goalkeeping error by Adam Kwarasey.
The midfield also experienced plenty of changes and adaptation periods throughout the season, as Diego Valeri had to assimilate back into the squad after suffering an ACL injury at the back end of the 2014 season. Without their midfield ace in the lineup, the Timbers had to rely more on Darlington Nagbe, who drove the attack to success despite not putting up tremendous statistics.
Valeri and Nagbe were also a part of a key formation change late in the regular season as Porter opted for a 4-3-3 formation instead of a 4-2-3-1. With the pair of playmakers given more range to roam in the attacking half, Portland benefited and won four of its last five regular-season contests to clinch the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
One other small change in approach helped Portland gain an early advantage on Sunday as Valeri, who isn't known for his skills as a defender, put pressure on Columbus goalkeeper Steve Clark and scored the fastest goal in MLS Cup history. Six minutes later, Nagbe started the move that led to Rodney Wallace's eventual game-winner.
“We knew that they take risks to play. That’s their way,” Valeri said, per MLSsoccer.com's Nicholas Rosano. “We knew that the aggressiveness in the first 20 minutes from us had to be there. We tried to press them, because most of the situations that they create come from their backline."
Porter's tactical masterstroke in late September forced Diego Chara into a lone defensive midfield role, where he thrived thanks to his physical play and technical ability. On Sunday, the Colombian gave Federico Higuain fits as the Argentine pressed for space due to the lack of production from the Crew wingers.
Even the much-maligned Lucas Melano, who joined the Timbers during the summer transfer window, made a few key contributions in the postseason to reward Porter for his faith in the player despite his struggles in the final third. Like many pricey attackers who enter MLS in the middle of a season, Melano is expected to be more consistent in first full season for the Timbers in 2016.
Speaking of attackers thriving in their first full year in MLS, Fanendo Adi found the back of the net on 18 occasions in the regular season and playoffs to help the Timbers earn their first title in franchise history. It was Adi's two goals at Mapfre Stadium on September 26 that propelled Portland to its late-season surge that included a 5-2 statement win over the Galaxy at StubHub Center on October 18.
“We’re all a part of it,” Porter said, per MLSSoccer.com's Dan Itel. “Without good players there’s never a good coach. Without a good coach there’s probably not good players either. So you’ve got to get both going. I don’t deserve the credit, we all deserve the credit, everybody."
The little tweaks made by Porter and the performances by the stars in the lineup helped Portland turn itself into a formidable MLS Cup contender as the postseason began. Sure, the Timbers benefited from some luck, especially in the penalty shootout against Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round. But when it came down to execution of the game plan, Portland thrived more than any other team who entered the postseason.
That was apparent in the first minute on Valeri's opening strike, and in the late stages of the contest as the Timbers dictated possession and pushed for a third to finish off the game. Portland was never the sexy pick to win MLS Cup or one the most-talked about teams in North America, but the Timbers were the club that adjusted best to its surroundings at the perfect time.
Thanks to the formation changes and the excellent play of everyone in the starting 11, the Portland Timbers were able to hoist their first MLS Cup on Sunday night. Based off what we saw in the back end of 2015, the Timbers have all the quality to challenge for the title in 2016, but let's allow them to enjoy a well-deserved championship for a few days before we start setting expectations for the next season, which only begins in three short months.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.