At this point you're probably getting sick of all the previews of various MLS teams leading up to their first game on Saturday. To be honest, many of you were probably expecting something like this from us a couple weeks ago and, in fact, I did create one for the SB Nation Soccer site earlier this month. However, for my own site, for our own fans, I absolutely didn't want to try to preview something that wasn't even completed. Now, two days before we kick off, I'm feeling a bit more secure that the team we have today will at least be the team we have for the beginning of the season.
Coming off a fairly successful "transitional" season in 2010, the Portland Timbers are a team that has a lot to prove, but not a lot of pressure, if that makes any sense. Essentially, we're a storied club (more storied than most in MLS, actually) that nobody is expecting too much out of. I can guarantee you fans from around the nation -- and I'm certain staff and players as well -- are looking at their two games against Portland and already crossing them off as "wins." We're a new MLS team, after all, so it's to be expected even if it's not entirely true.
As we progressed from USL to MLS, we've acquired many new faces on our team. While it's not a completely new team like Philadelphia was in 2010, we've certainly shaken things up as we currently only have eight players from our 2010 roster, and an additional two from our U-23 roster.
Here are the newcomers we can look forward to most this year:
Kenny Cooper: No big surprise here, but it needs to be said anyway. The big man up front is our only forward with any MLS experience at all aside from Bright Dike who will be out for the majority of the 2011 season. During his time in MLS Kenny Cooper scored 40 goals in 90 appearances making him FC Dallas' MVP for the 2008 season. After a couple of injury-ridden seasons in Europe, he's back the ply his trade in MLS.
It's a little difficult to judge Kenny Cooper right off the bat as both he and the league have matured since 2008. There are more Designated Players and stronger defensive back lines, especially for teams like the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls. Then again, Kenny Cooper's time in Europe will hopefully have honed his skills to the required level that MLS is playing at these days.
Darlington Nagbe: Surgery aside, Darlington Nagbe is probably our most exciting player. Fresh off winning the Hermann Trophy (college soccer's version of the Heisman Trophy), everything I've heard from pre-season training and games is that Darlington Nagbe is going to be a marquee player for us this season. While MLS is certainly a huge step above college athletics, something tells me that Nagbe is more than capable to step up to the challenge. Former winners of the trophy, including 2009's winner Teal Bunbury, have mostly gone on to do great things in soccer.
Jack Jewsbury: Languishing is the term best used when describing Jack Jewsbury's time at Sporting Kansas City. It's unfortunate that such a talented midfielder was misused at his former club. I've always liked Jack Jewsbury (I even picked him for SB Nation's mock Expansion Draft back in November) for his strong, competitive play and I think he will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in our midfield even if we do sign a top notch DP midfielder for this season. To summarize, I can't think of another player on our roster to lead our team as captain better than Jack Jewsbury.
Eric Brunner: Big, strong, challenging. I have a few friends who are Columbus Crew fans and believe me when I tell you that they were angry when we took Eric Brunner from them in the Expansion Draft. The reason being is that they all expected Eric Brunner to step in for Chad Marshall either when Chad leaves the team or if he were to ever get injured. Eric Brunner might be a little inexperienced, given his bench-warming status at Columbus, but his sheer size and skill is enough to warrant him being a solid center back for us in 2011.
Jorge Perlaza: The Colombian nobody expected until he was already training with the team in California, Jorge Perlaza is a great player to pair up with Kenny Cooper up top having come off a fantastic season with his former Colombian first division team Deportes Tolima where is scored 15 goals in 31 games. And before you question the legitimate skill required in the Colombian league remember that notable Seattle Sounders striker Fredy Montero was also signed from the Colombian league.
Dax McCarty: Easily the best player in the Expansion Draft, Portland selected Dax McCarty as their first pick only to trade him away in literally just a few hours. This was due to our FO's belief in acquiring a strong CM who would "be best in the league." That signing never really came to fruition, unfortunately, and our midfield is a bit weaker because of it. Dax McCarty is easily one of the best young players in the country right now and it's a shame he won't be plying his trade here in Portland.
Note: the Timbers are currently working on acquiring a DP, but I doubt that whatever player that had targeted back in November is the same player they're targeting today.
Steve Cronin: Easily a Timbers Army favorite, Steve Cronin was the perfect goalkeeper for us in the USL and he would have made a fantastic back up keeper for us in MLS, not to say Adin Brown won't do as well for us. The loss of Steve Cronin, more than anything else, was an emotional loss. It's going to be difficult come April 14th watching the players come out and not having Cronin turn around and roar at the Timbers Army from the goal post.
Kerrea Gilbert: While nothing has been announced, I'm going to assume, for the sake of this preview, that Kerrea Gilbert is gone. It's unfortunate, but legal issues in the UK have seemingly doomed Kerrea's foray into MLS. We'll never know how well he would have played in MLS, but any player that's been on Arsenal for that long can't be a bad player, even if he was just a bench warmer.
Our Starting 11
This isn't confirmed, but based on our current squad I'd say this is our starting 11 in a 4-4-2 formation:
Forward: Kenny Cooper paired up with Jorge Perlaza seems like the most logical choice at the moment. While Eddie Johnson and Brian Umony are both solid strikers, with Johnson possibly being the dark horse on our team, in terms of quantifiable stats and skills it just makes sense that Cooper and Perlaza would be up top.
Midfield: It was clear, above all else, during the Cascadia Summit that the Portland Timbers midfield against Seattle was stronger than the Timbers midfield going against Vancouver. While there could be any number of explanations for this, it's hard to deny that midfield the same right to play against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday. So, given that I would keep the midfield the same: Sal Zizzo, Jack Jewsbury, Peter Lowry and Jeremy Hall. Jeremy Hall, in particular could be a huge player for us this year. In New York the Red Bulls FO had him playing right back, in an unfamiliar role. We, however, are placing him in the midfield where he played in college.
Defense: Our back line is perhaps the most difficult to judge as of now, probably because it's also our weakest section. Currently I would go with Steve Purdy, Eric Brunner, Futty Danso, and Rodney Wallace in the starting 11 for defense. It's rough, and by no means a great defense, but it's probably the best we have so far. Both Purdy and Wallace have done well for us on the wings, running up and down when needed. Purdy, in particular was great when paired up with Sal Zizzo in the midfield. With Brunner and Danso holding down the center I think we have a big enough presence to stop most. Speed is certainly an issue, however, so maybe Kevin Goldthwaite in for one of them depending on how well they play.
Goalkeeper: No surprise here. Troy Perkins will absolutely be our starting keeper on Saturday. The most experience, and the best track record. Despite having a less than amazing 2010 season with D.C. United, Troy Perkins is by far our best man in goal. Adin Brown makes a fantastic sub though.
It's difficult to judge a new team when they haven't played a single regular season competitive match, but I would say that our team is fairly solid compared to many others in the league. While we certainly will have trouble facing off against the likes of the Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake, and the Colorado Rapids, each of which are incredibly deep and experienced teams right now, many other teams I feel pretty comfortable going up against. Not to say we'll be dominating anybody (well maybe the New England Revolution), but going up against the Houston Dynamo, Chivas USA, or San Jose Earthquakes I'm not seeing any huge discrepancy in talent between us and them.
If I had to guess an end of season point amount I'd say between 40-42. Despite being a "promoted" team as opposed to an "expansion" team we still have a lot of new faces on the team and it may take a while to get everybody adjusted to each other. If we manage to fight our way into the play-offs this year, I'd certainly call that a huge success for the team.