With the season reaching a frustrating, anticlimactic end on Saturday evening, it’s time to look back over the course of the season and hand out grades for each of the Timbers.
First, and this is important, a couple ground rules. Grades are relative to expectations, role, and significance moving forward. So Danny O’Rourke’s C+ does not mean I think he’s better than Norberto Paparatto, who received a C-. He’s not. But in light of the season as a whole, O’Rourke filled his role as a depth defender better than Papa served as a first-choice centerback.
Also, there’s no grade inflation here at Stumptown Footy. This isn’t graduate school – nobody is getting an A for simply meeting expectations. Rather, if a guy had a solid, unspectacular year, he probably landed in the C+/B- range.
Donovan Ricketts, B- 2014 was a drop-off from 2013 for Ricketts, but his regression was perhaps not as severe as many made it out to be. Ricketts’ 70% save percentage wasn’t stellar, but compares favorably to other high-shot-volume goalkeepers like David Ousted, Stefan Frei, Bobby Shuttleworth, and Luis Robles. In fact, the only goalkeeper who faced more shots and had a better save percentage was Jon Busch, who put together a year worthy of honorable mention on many Goalkeeper of the Year ballots. Donovan’s distribution remains mediocre – at best – and lack of mobility and fragility limited Ricketts at times. Nonetheless, while he wasn’t the savior he was in 2013, Ricketts remained passable in goal for the Timbers under less than ideal circumstances.
Andrew Weber, D An odd year for an odd signing for the Timbers. Performed acceptably in a few early-season appearances, but regressed substantially in CONCACAF Champions League appearances toward the end of the year, including causing perhaps the worst goal the Timbers have conceded since joining MLS against Olimpia. A concession, by the way, that wound up being the difference between advancement and elimitation. In the end he deservedly lost his job as backup to Jake Gleeson.
Jake Gleeson, B+ Gleeson made the most of what was likely a make-or-break year. Sent on loan to Sacramento Republic for most of the season, Gleeson earned a nomination for USL-Pro Goalkeeper of the Year and won the backup goalkeeper job for the first-team Timbers late in the season.
Pa Modou Kah, D Perhaps nobody had a more disappointing year than Kah. The remaining rampart of the Great Wall of Gambia was terrible to begin the season, then picked up medium-term Achilles injuries that put him out through the meat of the year. When Kah returned, he’d lost the alpha centerback spot to Liam Ridgewell. Toward the end of the season Kah finally put together a small string of respectable outings, only to once again get hurt and lose his spot to a more-impressive Norberto Paparatto.
Norberto Paparatto, C- It couldn’t have started a whole lot worse in Portland for Paparatto, as he clearly struggled to adjust to MLS and the United States. The horrible concessions and penalties had Paparatto decidedly in the F-range at midseason. While it took him a while to emerge from Caleb Porter’s doghouse, Paparatto’s second half was light-years better than his first, eventually earning the coach’s praises and making questionable his once-inevitable offseason departure.
Liam Ridgewell, B He hasn’t always been perfect, nor has the defense with him at the helm, but the last two months of the season revealed unmistakable signs that the Timbers defense was on the road to recovery. His grade, however, is deflated by a terrible performance in Tegucigalpa. For all the discussion about Caleb Porter’s lineup selections, it was Ridgewell – the DP defender – who had his fingerprints on two of the three concessions. Nonetheless, the Timbers’ five shutouts in their last nine games more than doubled the number they posted in the previous 25. While Ridgewell wasn’t the only reason for that, he was a significant one.
Danny O’Rourke, C+ Make no mistake about O’Rourke, he’s not and never will be a starting-quality centerback. But every team needs depth in central defense, and in that respect you can do a lot worse than O’Rourke.
Rauwshan McKenzie, D It’s harsh, but there’s really no nice way to put it: McKenzie isn’t an MLS player. That he made six MLS starts for the Timbers in 2014 says just about all you need to know about the centerback situation for most of the year.
Michael Harrington, D- It started so promisingly for Harrington. With a January call into the national team, it looked like Harrington had transcended his journeyman status and was poised to become one of the better fullbacks in MLS. Fast forward to October and Harrington has lost his spot in the starting lineup. While his play was never terrible, it was significantly short of considerable expectations. It’s easy to imagine Harringotn becoming a journeyman once again.
Jack Jewsbury, C Never poor but never outstanding, Jewsbury fell victim to a well-conceived youth movement at fullback. Retains value on account of his leadership, steadiness, and willingness to do absolutely anything for the club, but it’s easy to imagine Jewsbury’s days as a first-choice option may be over.
Jorge Villafana, B An intriguing offseason addition in a trade that seemed primarily designed to land Steve Zakuani, Villafana started slow before blossoming into one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2014. Heads into 2015 as the presumptive starter at left back and if he can continue to build on his summer and fall performances, could retain that spot for some time.
Alvas Powell, B+ At one point in the season Powell looked like he would be making his way back to Jamaica shortly. But the Timbers’ September surprise saw his stock jump through the roof. Powell still has a lot of development ahead of him, but the realization of a small slice of his potential make his vaulted ceiling apparent again and reestablishes Powell as the club’s highest-upside prospect.
Taylor Peay, B+ Peay caught Porter’s eye with a handful of solid U.S. Open Cup performances. He may wind up being the second coming of Ryan Kawoluk, but Peay certainly showed enough to earn himself a spot on the roster next year and, in all likelihood, consistent playing time with Timbers 2.
Bryan Gallego, C Struggled through injuries, but a little bit of a lost year for the Timbers’ imported homegrown. Difficult to grade, as he never made an appearance for the Timbers and had little involvement at the USL-Pro level, but he’s a prime candidate to benefit from Timbers 2.
The Defensive Midfielders
Will Johnson, C- Expectations couldn’t have been higher for Johnson, coming off a 2013 season in which some suggested he was a fringe MVP candidate. While in absolute terms Johnson was far from poor, his form noticeably dropped from 2013-levels before he suffered a very serious broken leg to finish his season. The bright side, however, is there aren’t many in MLS better suited than Johnson to bounce back from both a frustrating season and a serious injury.
Diego Chara, A- Porter summed it up in his postgame interview after the frustrating draw against RSL when he quipped, "Have you ever seen Chara have a bad game?" Succumbing to the urge to take Porter’s rhetorical question literally, you’d have to say the answer is "no." His fall was particularly stellar, which was massive in helping keep the Timbers on the tracks after Johnson went down.
Ben Zemanski, B+ Struggled with a concussion early on and had a far-too-remembered poor substitute performance against Seattle in April, but Zemanski’s shocker against the Sounders is a decided outlier among a season of otherwise good performances as the third defensive central midfielder. Zemanski’s contributions in stepping in for the injured Johnson, in particular, were excellent, raising questions about whether he might be more than just a solid third defensive central mid.
Steven Evans, C+ Difficult to grade because we saw so little of him. Played a fair amount on loan at Sacramento Republic, but the hope in his second year must have been to spend consistent time with the first team.
George Fochive, B Like Evans, played a bit for Sacramento Republic and even earned a successful cameo with the first team in the Timbers’ home CCL romp over Alpha United. Figures to be another player primed to benefit from Timbers 2 next year.
Diego Valeri, A You just be you, Diego.
Darlington Nagbe, B- Well, we can’t say he didn’t score. But to say his goalscoring production was a disappointment would be quite an understatement. But with only a few exceptions Nagbe did a magnificent job of not letting his scoring drought affect his influence as an elite shuttler in midfield. Took a step forward defensively, as well, and finished with a career-high seven assists.
Rodney Wallace, A- I thought Wallace was good up until I started doing Stumptown Breakdown. When I started looking at significant plays more in-depth, I noticed one thread running through almost everything good that happened – Rodney Wallace (often quietly) doing things right. It’s not always flashy. It’s usually not fluid. But damn, he can play and the team is markedly better with Rod on the field.
Gaston Fernandez, B There are few greater attacking luxuries than having a player like La Gata on the roster. Equally comfortable being a second forward, an upper-middle-class man’s Valeri, or a Nagbesque shuttler, Fernandez provides the Timbers quality, flexibility, and an elite late-game option.
Steve Zakuani, D+ While his play wasn’t always eye-catching, his presence made the team better (i.e., wider) during an early-season stretch in which the Timbers were struggling to score goals. Couldn’t stay off the training table, however, and did not show any signs of breaking out again. At this point, Zakuani looks tragically like he will be forever limited by his injury.
Kalif Alhassan, F It’s time for Kalif to move on. His repeated flashes over the last several years have proven to be just that – flashes. At this point, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for Kalif. Although he retains the ability to help the team at times, he’s more often a liability.
Michael Nanchoff, B Solid year for Nanchoff. A consistent, reliable option off the bench is always nice to have around both for league-play depth and U.S. Open Cup. Throw in a solid locker-room presence and a very right contract price and Nanchoff probably has a place on the Timbers’ roster for the foreseeable future.
Schillo Tshuma, C Like the others who spent their year on loan, it’s difficult to accurately grade Tshuma. Spent the season on loan at Arizona and had a hard time breaking through. This is a modest disappointment considering his promising start in preseason, but unfair to pass judgment until he’s had an opportunity to develop under the Timbers guidance.
Fanendo Adi, B+ Nine goals and four assists in 24 appearances (18 starts) is good production, especially in a league that is notoriously unkind to forwards acquired midseason. But Adi’s biggest contribution is the space he opens for the likes of Valeri by occupying the centerbacks. If Adi can take even a fairly typical year-two jump, he could wind up being one of the better strikers in MLS.
Maxi Urruti, A- Second best goals-per-90 in MLS among players who logged more than 500 minutes. More importantly, he and Adi are very nicely matched as a top-level platoon. The trade that landed Urruti from Toronto FC is very much a #GWOMG moment.
Caleb Porter, C+ Followed up a near-perfect first season in MLS with a largely ambivalent second. For the second year in a row, the Timbers started slow, with the start in 2014 putting the team behind the eight-ball for the rest of the season. This must be addressed in 2015. Tactically, the Timbers solid form from May through October largely vindicated Porter’s faith in his system, even if the team’s approach was probably overly aggressive – leaving a rickety back line exposed – through the summer. Caleb bears significant responsibility for the collapse in Tegucigalpa, as the team was simply not ready to play when the whistle blew. While just one game, the truth is it was a game that carried outsize consequence, and Porter’s failure to properly prepare his team in that moment is similarly magnified. Nonetheless, the Timbers, perhaps more than any team we’ve seen in recent memory, showed a remarkable ability to pick themselves off the mats after deflating results. Thus, while in some respects it was a disappointing year for Porter, it’s clear the team remains united behind his clear vision and strong leadership.
Gavin Wilkinson, B+ This is a difficult grade as well because so much of what would inform the assessment, like the Timbers salary structure and Wilkinson’s involvement player acquisition decision-making, isn’t publicly clear. But, with a full season to reflect, the major signings in the past year have ranged from solid to great. Norberto Paparatto looked like a miss until he got comfortable, at which point he looked like a viable part of a successful central defense pairing. Gaston Fernandez turned out to be the Manu Ginobili of MLS. But where Wilkinson earned his grade was the midseason signings. Midsummer signings are notorious for flopping in MLS, but Wilkinson did very well to negotiate major deals with two players who could end up being key pieces for the foreseeable future in Adi and Ridgewell. Both Adi and Ridgewell helped put the Timbers back on track in 2014 and are key reasons why there is reason to believe the end result will be better in 2015. Finally, Wilkinson deserves credit for negotiating two of the more lopsided trades in MLS in recent memory – bringing Maxi Urruti to the Rose City for Bright Dike and a draft pick, and robbing the Colorado Rapids of their natural first-round selection (which we now know will be #5) for Danny Mwanga. Though those trades were negotiated in 2013, we’re only now fully appreciating how absurdly lopsided they were.