By now we all know the story pretty well: the defense was crap at the beginning of the season, but by the end it was one of the Portland Timbers' strengths. Individual players improved, as did communication amongst them, and the front office augmented that development with a shrewd mid-season trade.
Even considering the improvements made during the course of the season, though, it is clear that Gavin Wilkinson and company will not shy away from making further improvements.
Mike Chabala and Lovel Palmer, players brought in from the Houston Dynamo to shore up the wings, were likely thought of as temporary solutions, solid though they both were. They both played stingy defense had some nifty plays on the attack. They weren't perfect, but they got the job done.But the drop-off in quality after those two is significant. Rodney Wallace has shown himself to be shaky defensively, at least at this point in his career, and may well move to a midfield role in the future. Chris Taylor stayed confined to the reserve squad for the duration of the season. Steve Purdy is a decent replacement on the right wing (as well as in the center), but at 6'4" he is more naturally suited as a central defender.
The Timbers organization signaled their trust in the three central defenders who have logged the most minutes, protecting Eric Brunner, Futty Danso and David Horst during the expansion draft. The trust is well placed. Brunner has become the leader the Timbers needed in the defense, holding the back line while Horst and Futty intercept opposing attackers and occasionally play the ball forward.
In the short term the Timbers might be all right with four players (including Purdy) vying for the two center defender positions. But the team does not have any young talent in development -- the reserve side was often forced to rely on guest players to cover the back line in 2011.
The first and second string goal keepers are set in the minds of Timbers fans, in Troy Perkins and Jake Gleeson. Adin Brown's release opens a spot for another young upstart -- or perhaps an experienced former Timber -- to stand between the sticks in case the first two get injured.
What the Timbers have:
- Size and composure in the center: Brunner, Futty, and Horst
- Experience on the wings: Chabala, Palmer
- Promising youngster on the left wing: Chris Taylor
- A serviceable utility substitute: Steve Purdy
- General awesomeness in goal: Perkins, Gleeson
What the Timbers are lacking:
- Depth on the wings, especially on the right
- One more central defender and one more goalkeeper
The most pressing concern continues to be on the wings. The Timbers front office think highly of Chris Taylor and Rodney Wallace, but neither finished the season as a starter-quality player. Jonathan Bornstein's name has been tossed around here on Stumptown Footy, as the Timbers hold his MLS contract. He would likely bring some improvement and veteran savvy to the squad, but he would also be yet another left defender on a team that already has three of them (if you include Wallace). They would still need to add depth on the right.
The Timbers will likely be looking for at least two defensive wings, one of them good enough to start ahead of Chabala and/or Palmer at least occasionally in 2012. They also need to sign a young central defender to develop over the longer term.
Finally, the front office will likely sign a third keeper (and I wouldn't be at all surprised if that third keeper was Steve Cronin).