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Caleb Porter determined to keep Portland Timbers hungry in 2016

Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe discusses the his team's 2015 MLS Cup title run, playing for head coach Caleb Porter and his hopes for the USMNT in 2016.

Caleb Porter's official title is head coach of the Portland Timbers, but his day-to-day job on the eve of the 2016 MLS season might be more accurately described as amateur psychologist.

That's because the way Porter sees it, the mentality of his team will be the biggest factor in determining how close the Timbers come to repeating as MLS Cup champions. It's the message he's been preaching since the team convened for preseason in late January, the same one he'll keep drilling into his players' heads up to and beyond Sunday's season opener against the Columbus Crew (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), the side Portland defeated in December to secure its first league title.

"I think the really simple mindset our group has is, 'Last year is over,'" Porter told ESPN in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. "This is a new year. It has nothing to do with last year. Teams will be fighting it out with each other as always. There will be ups and downs. There will be wins and losses. It's going to be a tough season like it is every single year for every single team."

If it sounds as though Porter is managing expectations for the Timbers, it's because he is. He knows that Portland's soccer-mad public expects even more this season, whether that's in the form of another league title, winning the Supporters Shield as MLS's top regular-season team or surviving the group stage of the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League, which begins in August.

Playing in three competitions won't help on the domestic front. The Timbers failed to advance when they were last involved in the Champions League two years ago and went on to miss the 2014 MLS playoffs by a single point.

Even last year, Portland was out of the playoff places late in the regular season before eventually claiming the Western Conference's No. 3 seed on the final day of the campaign.

No wonder Porter bristles at any talk of championship hangovers or of the Timbers suddenly having targets on their backs, even if history and human nature suggest that those can be the price of success.

Caleb Porter's Portland Timbers caught fire last fall and rode that hot streak all the way to their first MLS championship.
Caleb Porter's Portland Timbers caught fire last fall and rode that hot streak all the way to their first MLS championship.

"The psychology that I'm trying to build into my group is we're not going to be talking about MLS Cup, repeating, defending the cup or how teams now want to beat us more," Porter said. "Teams always wanted to beat us."

While Porter has been consumed by keeping his players' minds on the short term -- the next training session, the next game -- Portland GM Gavin Wilkinson's focus this winter has been on bolstering the roster.

Despite losing 2015 starters Jorge Villafana and Rodney Wallace as well as supporting pieces like defenders Jeanderson and Norberto Paparatto, Portland's roster is arguably stronger this season than it was last year thanks to the arrival of league veterans Ned Grabavoy, Chris Klute, Jack McInerney and Jermaine Taylor.

"We replaced everyone we lost," Wilkinson said. "We had identified the likely players that we were losing, and we had a depth chart in every position of who we wanted to go after. We knew what we had to spend and what profiles we were looking for. Our focus was to get MLS-proven players."

The sale of Villafana to Mexican club Santos Laguna -- an opportunity that presented itself as late as October -- gave the club added roster flexibility.

"We would've loved to keep him, but the player knew what he was going to earn overseas and we couldn't come close to [matching] it," Wilkinson said. "With that allocation money, we were able to keep the majority of the group together."

Porter said he believes that if he can just guide the Timbers into the postseason -- keeping them level-headed along the way -- that's where the experience of last year could really pay off.

"They've proven they can win it -- they now have the blueprint to do it," Porter said. "That means when you get in that position in the playoffs the next time, there's a positive psychology that helps you to do it again.

"But they also understand the process," Porter added. "They know we're going to have ups and downs. I told them they should be thinking exactly the way they were last year: just as hungry, just as focused on knowing what we need to do to get into the playoffs. Winning a few more games at the end of last year doesn't mean we're going to come in and steamroll everyone and be perfect. But ultimately, the goal is to win a trophy again."

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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