The Timbers defense began the year as the team's most glaring weakness, but became the feel-good story of the year by the end of the season. The questionable personnel choices made in the preseason doomed them from the start. To make matters worse they fell victim to more than their fair share of ugly injuries and immigration issues.
Ultimately the turnaround came down to a brilliant move by the front office -- trading Adam Moffatt for Palmer and Chabala -- and the vast improvement made by the central defenders.
Eric Brunner: B
Perhaps no Timber grew and improved as much during the course of the year as Eric Brunner. His leadership, marking, clearing, reading, etc., were all vastly improved, as he became the Timbers' sure thing on the back line. He definitely earned the nickname I gave him -- Dr Brunner -- because he cleans up so well.
While at the beginning of the season a ball into the goal area would scare the crap out of the Timbers faithful, towards the end of the season it was Brunner on whom we could most rely for intercepting the through balls and aerial crosses. He's an excellent passer as well -- e.g. the unbelievable service he gave to Darlington Nagbe against New England (when Nagbe controlled with his chest and launched the ball at Matt Reis' face). His three goals on the season are icing on the cake.
Of course, there was also the early part of the season. Best not to mention that as much.
Mike Chabala: B-
Chabala's character is everything you want in a defender: he's vocal, intimidating, and driven. My fiancee calls him "Scrappy Do," a nickname that suits him all around. He routinely makes excellent defensive plays and does his job well on clearances. He's one of the best passers the Timbers have, showing his skill time and again with pinpoint crosses in front of goal. And his leadership has had an immeasurable impact at the back.
But he has shown lapses as well. He doesn't always have the speed to prevent attackers from getting past him and making turns toward the middle, and he hasn't always had the stamina necessary for the full 90.
Futty Danso: B-
It's safe to say that Futty has become the fan favorite among defenders, a title once held by his former teammate Scot Thompson. He's big, imposing, gets his head on the ball in front of both goal areas, and does it all with a big smile. He knows his role and teams up well with Brunner. And he's clutch up front, scoring three goals including the equalizers away at Seattle and Salt Lake.
But he's made mistakes too. He misread the play that led to Real Salt Lake's only goal against the Timbers this season. He doesn't have the confidence at the back that his teammates have demonstrated. And he could stand to improve his passing a bit.
David Horst: B+
The Horstache was the stuff of legends, but lo, we hardly knew him at that early point of the season. He is so much more than facial hair. After Bright Dike, Horst is probably the Timbers' most imposing player, a physical presence that makes opposing strikers cower in fear.
Some people counter that Horst is injury prone, but to me that's largely a result of his willingness to put himself in danger for the team. Case in point, his memorable performance against Chivas, repeatedly putting himself in harm's (well, Justin Braun's) way. In addition, he makes excellent runs forward from the middle, his skill on the ball often taking the opposition by surprise.
It is true: he did spend too much of the year injured. He has also occasionally strayed too far backward, negating the offside trap. Other than that, correct me if I'm wrong, but it's tough to find many other faults in his game.
Lovel Palmer: B-
Palmer's got speed, size, vision and understanding of the game. Plus he has an awesome Jamaican accent and an entertaining Twitter account. Today's gem: "Really wish my GPS could talk to me in my jamaican dialect lol."
He's not a highlight reel kinda guy, with the exception of those consecutive missed shots against New England, but that's a good thing. He contains his opposition, gets forward well, races back when he needs to, and he's had some game saving tackles and blocks. And his quality usually stays strong for the full 90.
But he's also been caught out of position at times, and occasionally his focus isn't there. A few near catastrophes have occurred when Palmer has stood and watched a play unfold, instead of following his mark's movement off the ball. Furthermore, he takes too many shots from distance, often when he should be redistributing forward or switching fields.
Rodney Wallace: D+
Many Timbers fans have been down on Rod all throughout this year, starting with his inability to contain Omar Cummings in Game 1 in Colorado, all the way up to the shaky defense he contributed in the DC United match. Those lowlights include a disastrous performance in Kansas City, which drew some unsavory words from the comments to the match report. Detractors point specifically to his sometimes lackadaisical marking, his poor clearances, and a slight stature that allows big strikers to get around him too easily.
I would be very surprised if he continued to be in the running for a defensive position in 2012. But he's shown flashes of brilliance for both the Timbers and Costa Rica. Plus he's still very young and has the raw athleticism that Spencer and Wilkinson have put a premium on. If he continues to learn the game and improve his vision, Wallace might well end up being one of the players competing for one of the midfield wing positions in the 2012 preseason.
Kevin Goldthwaite: Incomplete
Goldthwaite didn't make many friends early in the season, but after so many of our alternatives in the center mid went down with injuries, his brief run midseason eased many fears. But then the season-ending injury happened in Chicago (sweet fancy Moses that looked painful), and we never really got to see what he was capable of. I look forward to his return, if his lower leg ever manages to reattach itself to the rest of his body.
Steve Purdy: Incomplete
The Salvadoran international began the season in the starting XI but quickly lost his spot. I'll be surprised if he breaks onto the first team next season.