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From the Stump: Certainly Uncertain

Despite relative roster certainty, the Timbers join the rest of MLS in facing an uncertain offseason.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

With the Timbers eliminated from MLS competition some time ago and the MLS playoffs hitting a pause for the international break, the gaze of MLS-watching eyes has shifted toward the offseason this week.

In many respects this offseason for the Timbers shapes up as simply as any since joining MLS. While the suits on Morrison Street will certainly be looking to a few spots to improve the team, the Timbers have the luxury of certainty in at least nine positions across the first-choice starting eleven.

Coming into the offseason, I would rank the Timbers priorities as follows:

  1. Stabilize the central defense;
  2. Get younger and cheaper, or at least develop a succession plan, at goalkeeper;
  3. Replace anything lost to the expansion draft;
  4. Add a young, versatile attacking midfielder who can play on the wing; and
  5. Acquire a third forward.

As offseason to-do lists go, that one isn’t especially daunting – only one or two key pieces really need to be addressed along with a handful of relatively minor pieces to acquire. For a number of reasons, however, this relative roster stability does not necessarily equate to strategic simplicity for Caleb Porter, Gavin Wilkinson, and the rest of the Timbers front office.

Among these reasons is the elephant in the proverbial room that is this MLS offseason: Ongoing collective bargaining agreement negotiations.

Projecting offseason activity necessarily involves predicting how a team will work within league roster rules to address their needs. The problem with projecting this offseason is we know even less than usual about MLS roster rules. The salary cap, roster size, number of designated-player spots, league-minimum salary, and myriad other roster rules are up in the air at the moment.

Simply put, at this moment we don’t know the rules the teams will have to comply with come roster-compliance day in March. There does not appear to be any shortage of hand-wringing among MLS executives about this.

Even uncertainty regarding lesser-known rules like the annual amnesty provision, by which a club can buyout the contract of one player per year without any prospective salary-cap consequences, can throw an otherwise simple offseason into predictive chaos. Take the Timbers, for example. Looking at what we know of the Timbers salary structure, it is clear the club needs to free itself of Pa Modou Kah’s contract. This is simple enough if Kah is out of contract or on a club option, but he becomes a prohibitive favorite for the amnesty clause if the club is committed to him for another year.

But will the amnesty clause exist next year? If not, can it still be used to buy out a contract this offseason before CBA negotiations are complete? If it does persist will the amnesty clause still be annual? Will teams be able to use the amnesty clause more than once per annum?

No honest outsider knows.

But assume for a moment the Timbers can shed Kah’s contract and still have amnesty rights to their avail – what then? Do the Timbers pursue a more significant center-back overhaul by also jettisoning Norberto Paparatto despite improved late-season performances? Does the club look to upgrade quality and downgrade salary commitments at goalkeeper? While it’s not clear whether the Timbers would like to do the former, the latter seems fairly likely to be in their plans if it is possible. In any event, it’s unclear whether either will be possible, and if so where that would leave the Timbers moving forward.

Thus, the only thing certain about the Timbers offseason, as well as the offseasons of the 19 other MLS teams, is that their plans are rife with uncertainty, no matter how straightforward their winter ambitions would otherwise be.

And it’s in offseasons like this one in which general managers demonstrate their value.