Tomorrow marks the start of preseason games for the Portland Timbers in 2014 and is a good time to take a step back and compare the team's composition now to this time last year. In simplest terms, the difference was articulated by Merritt Paulson just before Christmas:
Been a busy ramp up to holidays here & good stuff happening. Nice to be tuning and not overhauling this time. Wishing great holiday to u all— Merritt Paulson (@MerrittPaulson) December 23, 2013
So let's go back 367 days to Portland's 2013 preseason opener against Colorado Rapids in Tucson. Clearly the Timbers made huge changes in the offseason between the disastrous 2012 season and 2013, though you might be surprised at just how many of those changes had not yet actually been finalized when the team took the field on January 29, 2013.
Caleb Porter used two different groups of eleven players, one for the first half, one for the second. Here are the two line-ups, including one substitution due to a first half injury:
Donovan Ricketts; Michael Harrington, David Horst, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Ryan Miller; Diego Chara, Will Johnson, Jack Jewsbury (Eric Alexander 7'); Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, Ryan Johnson
Milos Kocic; Chris Taylor, Mikael Silvestre, Futty Danso, Ryan Kawulok; Michael Nanchoff, Kalif Alhassan, Danny Mwanga, Sal Zizzo; Bright Dike, Jose Valencia
Pretty easy to forget that the likes of Taylor, Alexander and Mwanga not only were still part of the team in late January but played in a preseason game with the Timbers in 2013. By March 3, opening day, of course all three were long gone.
What's interesting is how fine tuning a roster, as opposed to overhauling one, does not necessarily mean a lack of player movement. Looking at the twenty-three players who suited up against Colorado in Tucson last year, thirteen have departed the club (admitting that Valencia is on loan, not yet fully transferred out). Of those thirteen, only the aforementioned three were gone before the 2013 season started while Bright Dike and Ryan Kawulok were midseason departures. So that leaves eight players from that game who were still with Portland at the conclusion of the season who have since moved on.
The overhaul described my Merritt Paulson was indeed profound, combining procedural moves with players who could help Porter quickly implement his plans. For example, when the Timbers started the 2013 preseason, though he was on trial with the team, Michael Nanchoff had not yet been acquired. Likewise, the trade for Ben Zemanski did not come until February 13. Despite all the jokes about the acquisition of his former Akron players, Porter needed some of that familiarity during his first preseason in charge of the Timbers. Compare that to the acquisition of Steve Zakuani in 2014. Porter no longer needs players to help implement his system and can now focus more on what we'll call a luxury, or an enhancement, even though Zakuani shares that same Akron background.
Still looming over the Timbers' heads in late January 2013 were Kris Boyd and Franck Songo'o. It's easy to forget that both players were still under contract and technically affiliated with the club when preseason started last year, though neither actually made the trip to Arizona. Boyd's departure was announced on February 1 while Songo'o managed to draw out his tenure through February 27. Portland's recent agreement with Mikael Silvestre is most similar to Boyd's exit, though it would seem without all of the baggage that was still dragging behind the team as it pulled into the Kino Sports Complex in Tucson.
Speaking of Silvestre, the Timbers hadn't yet formalized their commitment to the Frenchman when the preseason started last year. Though he played in the game against Colorado, Silvestre later left the Timbers and joined the Seattle Sounders before eventually returning to Portland in a trade announced February 20. The next day, Gavin Wilkinson orchestrated a trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps to provide the Timbers with draft picks for the right to sign Nigel Reo-Coker, whose discovery rights Portland controlled. Mwanga was traded to Colorado for a 2015 first round draft pick on February 28 and the Timbers announced the signing of Frederic Piquionne later in the day.
Though the overhaul did provide a huge number of new players, it also set the stage for future moves in a way that has been less prevalent this year. In other words, last offseason a number of moves were made to acquire allocation money and/or draft picks, not to mention the Home Grown Player rights to Bryan Gallego. While the influx of new players defined last offseason, particularly with the likes of Michael Harrington, Will Johnson and Diego Valeri playing such prominent roles, there were other moves that were necessarily gap-fillers. Ryan Miller, Ryan Johnson and Silvestre were able to play important parts at various stages of the season and were experienced enough to easily take on Porter's system. Yet clearly none were exactly what he wanted in the longer-term, which is what the current offseason has been about.
Rather than bridging the chasm between the John Spencer era and the Porter regime, the Timbers have been able to more selectively identify areas of need and areas for enhancement. While Silvestre was lauded for his experience and on-the-ball skills, Portland found Norberto Paparatto who is younger and similarly skilled with the ball. Johnson scored a bunch of goals, particularly early in the season, but he is not exactly the ideal for Porter's fluid, attacking scheme. In his place, Gaston Fernandez will help Porter make his front line look even closer to that of his Akron days than Johnson ever could. None of this is to say that the moves will all work exactly as Porter hopes, but there is certainly a difference in approach this offseason.
Meanwhile, the allocation money acquired via trades involving Eric Brunner, Kosuke Kimura, Eric Alexander and the rights to Robbie Findley helped bring in Diego Valeri last year and allowed the Timbers to sign the two players from Argentina without needing to use the Designated Player system. This offseason, only Sal Zizzo's trade to Sporting Kansas City has yielded allocation money.
In time, we may look back on this offseason and see it differently than it appears at present. Certainly there is more nuance to these moves than appears on face value, as we can clearly extrapolate from last season's changes. Success and qualification for the Champions League have made 2014 a wholly different proposition than the challenges 2013 presented.