On Monday, the other new Stumptown Footy blogger, Ryan Gates, posted a comparison of the Portland Timbers to other Major League Soccer expansion teams from previous years. He went on to analyze the rosters of the Timbers against the initial rosters of the Philadelphia Union and the Seattle Sounders. The general conclusion I reached from Ryan's post is that teams will struggle unless there is exceptional talent on the field (e.g. Kasey Keller in goal).
However, there's another important comparison to be made between expansion teams. Because Portland and the Vancouver Whitecaps are joining MLS at the same time, the two sides' rosters are naturally comparable. Because there is a regional rivalry between the two teams, the comparison is interesting and practical.
Because roster-building is an inexact science, both the teams in question took different approaches to building their rosters.
The Timbers built from the top down, putting its greatest resources behind designated player and former U.S. international Kenny Cooper (who has a mighty fine first name) and mysterious Central American midfielder (known conventionally as Colombian national team member Jorge Perlaza).
Meanwhile, the Whitecaps took a more conservative approach when building their team initially. Vancouver's big signing was U.S. World Cup-starting central defender Jay Demerit, and it drafted former Seattle Sounders defender Nathan Sturgis in the expansion draft. Vancouver did not use its designated player slots when constructing its initial roster, but given the huge hole it has at forward, it is possible the team had planned to use one on a transfer that later fell through.
The same dichotomy of aggressive and conservative styles also showed up during the expansion draft and the open draft afterward.
Portland dreamed big with its expansion draft acquisitions. With the first pick in the expansion draft, it drafted Dax McCarty, the consensus best player available, just to turn around and trade him to D.C. United for defender Rodney Wallace. The Timbers also took U.S. internationals Robbie Findley and Jonathan Bornstein even though they were leaving the country to maintain the players' rights should they come back to MLS in the near future.
In contrast, the Whitecaps played the expansion draft with a long-term view. They shipped off four of their selections, including Seattle's Sanna Nyassi (Gambian national teammate of Timbers defender Mamadou Danso), their first pick, but only got back international player spots and allocation money.
The Whitecaps' decision to draft Omar Salgado with the first pick of the SuperDraft turned some heads ... sideways. Because he is a U17 U.S. national, he can't play in Canada until his 17th birthday, which is Sept. 10. Vancouver's selection of Salgado is a long-term investment, but his huge 6'4'' frame and intriguing talent at such a young age are what attracted the team to him. Even so, his inability to play for the team in the short term handicaps the Whitecaps at forward. Vancouver also traded into the first round to select Akron midfielder Michael Nanchoff, an undersized offensive-oriented midfielder.
Troublingly for the Whitecaps, Salgado has already been linked to Arsenal, and although he is signed with the league for the next three years under a Generation Adidas contract, he has stated a desire to end up in Europe.
The Timbers were fortunate to find Darlington Nagbe, Nanchoff's Akron teammate, at the second spot in the SuperDraft. Nagbe is going to end up as either a forward or an offensive midfielder in MLS. He was seen as the player most likely to help a team right away, and he will be able to help the Timbers in the short term as well as the long term.
Once wildly different manners in which the teams were constructed -- by front offices with wildly different mindsets -- is considered, it's time to look at the ensuing on-field products both teams will feature in their inaugural seasons.
The defense is the one place where Vancouver has a marked advantage over the Timbers. With Jay Demerit, Nathan Sturgis, Swiss defender Alain Rochat and others in back, the Whitecaps will instantly be one of the league's stingier teams.
At the same time, Portland's back line looks to be its biggest Achilles heel heading into 2011. Eric Brunner, drafted in the expansion draft from the Columbus Crew, will likely be the Timbers' best defender*. Kevin Goldthwaite carries a wealth of league experience, and Kerrea Gilbert used to be Arsenal property. Rodney Wallace also has a lot to live up to, given the haul dealt to D.C. United to acquire him. However, he is still a definite question mark as is the defense as a whole.
*Unless Timber Joey is able to play with his chainsaw. He may be encumbered in the open field, but he would be murder on set pieces.
The midfield seems to be a fairly even match, although I would probably tilt the battle toward the Timbers just a bit. Ryan Pore and Eddie Johnson are intriguing carryovers from the USL, and both showed a good ability to put the ball in the net. Jeremy Hall and Adam Moffat, two players with league experience, also have chances to come in and make an impact for the club. I also expect Darlington Nagbe to slot into a role behind the forwards to get him on the field, and he is who turns the tables in the midfield in this matchup, in my opinion.
The Whitecaps aren't hapless in the midfield, however. Shea Salinas and John Thorrington are both MLS veterans. The aforementioned Michael Nanchoff also has the potential to bring an offensive spark to the team, provided his slight frame doesn't get exploited. There is a lot less depth in the midfield for Vancouver as well. I'm not including Atiba Harris in the midfield discussion, because he is likely to be shoehorned into Vancouver's lone striker role.
At forward, the Timbers have a significant advantage. Kenny Cooper was one of the league's best strikers before he took his talents to 1860 Munich of the 2. Bundesliga, and Mysterious Colombian is a dynamic, if enigmatic, creative player. I don't need to extol the virtues of Kenny Cooper too much, but here's something to entertain you and reward you for making it this far.
On the other hand, the Whitecaps have a serious, serious hole at forward. Eighty Six Forever blogger (and startlingly frequent Eintracht Frankfurt mentioner) Benjamin Massey wrote a post ranking Vancouver's strikers Feb. 4.
He went through and itemized discussions of each of the 10 alternatives Vancouver has for the striker position. Here are the first four, in order of how he posted them.
Atiba Harris' post started out with "Atiba Harris isn't actually a forward."
Omar Salgado's post started out with "Omar Salgado would be at the top of this list if he were actually allowed to play for us."
Cornelius Stewart's post started out with "Cornelius Stewart, nicknamed 'Cornhole' by pretty much just me, is the Whitecaps' best option if Teitur doesn't want to strap the shin guards back on."
Kyle Porter's post started out with "My main problem with slotting Kyle Porter at striker is that I don't think Kyle Porter is a striker."
If you're keeping score from home, that's two "forwards" who aren't, one forward who can't, and one forward named "Cornhole." So, to say the Whitecaps are in serious trouble at the position would be a significant understatement.
All in all, the teams are likely to be toward the bottom of the league this upcoming season, but it appears that Portland has a significant upper hand over Vancouver in the short term. Given the Timbers' roster construction, a lot of high-scoring matches with free-flowing soccer are likely. Given the Whitecaps' roster construction, renaming the team to "Vanc0-0uver" for the upcoming season would not be unfair.
Timbers fans, take solace in the fact that your team is better than at least one of its Cascadian rivals.