"Those three players are very good players and we want to put them in spots and put them together in a way where all three of them are effective." - Caleb Porter March 1, 2014
Those three players are Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri and Gaston Fernandez and their presence in Portland is both a credit to the club's scouting and the challenge for Porter to figure out how best to utilize them. The story of the preseason from an offensive perspective has centered firmly on where and how these three players will combine as group beneath striker Maximiliano Urruti. To be sure, Kalif Alhassan, Schillo Tshuma, Steve Zakuani and Rodney Wallace will play significant roles in the attacking half of the field, but Fernandez, Valeri and Nagbe are the key.
Part of the difficulty in knowing exactly how this will play out, even though Porter certainly has an idea of what he wants to do, has been Valeri's extended injury absence. Only on Saturday night against Vancouver Whitecaps did the three key attackers start a game together, just one week before the season's first game. Earlier in the preseason, Fernandez saw the majority of minutes in the no. 10 role with a combination of Nagbe, Alhassan and Tshuma around him. Had Valeri been fully healthy, Fernandez likely would not have seen as much time in the middle of the park. While he could have had a perfectly good preseason playing in wider areas, particularly on the left, Fernandez was able to develop his on-field relationships with Urruti and Nagbe from a position that allowed him to combine with them frequently.
Even when Valeri returned for Saturday's preseason finale, Fernandez spent most of the first half playing through the middle. Porter rotated his attacking trio in the second half before substitutes changed the make up of the group. Said Porter afterward:
"I thought that the second half, with Valeri at the 10, Gaston on the left, kind of coming in on his right, and Nagbe on the right...I thought both [halves] felt good but [the second half] felt a notch better. But there are going to be some games where we rotate it, and it's nice to have that flexibility."
That statement is the key to the offseason moves and to the entirety of the build up to the season opener. Unlike last season, where Valeri was the clear no. 10 with Nagbe to his right and Wallace to his left, Porter has many more possible combinations both for starting points and for in-game rotation. That flexibility is no longer just hypothetical as Porter finally got a chance to tinker with his optimal group and enhanced his team's ability to attack with a halftime adjustment.
This point will be made repeatedly, both in this space and when Porter is asked about it after training sessions or games: these roles are simply starting points. With each of the three key midfielders able and expected to move through the formation as circumstances or Porter dictate, the Timbers' attack should be problematic for opposing defenses.
It's also clear that the team will gain from the returns of Wallace and Zakuani, particularly if the latter can come even remotely close to his pre-injury form. Porter likes to remind the media that it was Zakuani who smoked the Timbers for a goal while still in a Seattle Sounders jersey early in last season, before his most recent injuries derailed his comeback. Yet his preseason consisted of getting to know Valeri pretty well as the two worked out together away from the main group. The returns of these left-sided players will give Porter even more players from which to choose, though they will limit the rotational flexibility of the group as a whole. Missing out on that kind of tinkering in the preseason is one of the few downsides from a successful training camp and Rose City Invitational.
One other downside has been the overall lack of scoring from the front four. Porter has explained that he would be more worried if the team was not creating chances or challenging defenses, but there is obviously a point at which not scoring is a problem. Then again, successful teams from the previous season often approach preseason differently than unsuccessful ones. Rather than trying to score at every conceivable possibility to impress the coaching staff, Portland's attackers were able to focus on strengthening the passing and movement relationships that will be so key to creating scoring opportunities down the line. But the question remains, when will that scoring begin? Fernandez and Urruti were spectacular in their thirty minutes against Houston Dynamo in Tucson, and there were wonderful sequences of possession in the Rose City Invitational. Yet scoring remained elusive.
Though their exact roles will be more knowable as the season unfolds, both Alhassan and Tshuma deserve a moment of attention. Both performed well when called upon and Tshuma scored one of the few Portland goals. If injury, suspension or other issues prevent any of the midfield three from playing, Alhassan is proving to be a worthy replacement and provider of a unique skill set. Of course he still sometimes resembles that frustrating teenager but his game is filling out and his talent is undeniable. More than a few MLS clubs would be happy to have a player like Alhassan, who will start the season as the Timbers' fourth attacking option in the midfield.
Finally, Urruti has clearly been the top choice striker throughout the preseason. Frederic Piquionne is going to play and contribute, but Urruti is the player who will be responsible for scoring goals, combining with the three midfielders around him and harrying opposing defenders with Porter's favored pressing. As previously mentioned, he was terrific is the short period against Houston and looked quite good in the Rose City Invitational with the same caveat that he did not actually score.
In short, the preseason gave the first glimpses at the refined and updated version of Porter's preferred style. The new pieces complement the existing strengths without introducing much by way of regression. Only the actual scoring of goals is left now that the regular season is just days away. While the Timbers had a great defensive record in 2013 and the Will Johnson/Diego Chara combination is hugely important to Portland's success, it's evident that the attacking phase of the game is Porter's point of pride. The preseason gave a taste of what's possible over thirty-four league games and two other competitions. Now it's time to see if the scouting, planning and preparation can meet the lofty expectations for 2014.