The Timbers early-offseason activity has had positive effects on the club. One downside, however, is that the Timbers’ early-bird offseason has made the latter stages of the offseason quite boring for supporters. While other teams have been chasing DPs and signing Scandinavia-based players, aside from a brief flirtation with Jozy Altidore the Timbers front office has been quiet to the outside observer.
But with training camp opening officially on Friday, the wait for Timbers news is over. A week from Saturday the Timbers will play their first preseason game and, barring an unexpected work stoppage, Timbers supporters won’t have to go more than two weeks without a game until next fall.
So with training camp on the doorstep, here’s take a look at five things to watch in the Timbers’ preseason.
1. Caleb Porter’s Attacking Midfield
By far the biggest question facing the Timbers this preseason is how Caleb Porter will set up his midfield in Diego Valeri’s absence for what looks likely to be the first six to ten games of the season. Although this question looked fairly well settled at the end of the 2014 campaign, the December addition of Dairon Asprilla provides Porter some options in midfield. Let’s break down some of the likeliest scenarios:
Option 1: Wallace – Fernandez – Nagbe
The post-2014 conventional wisdom probably remains the likeliest setup for the Timbers’ attacking midfield. The reason is simple: everything fits. Rodney Wallace provides width on the left while Darlington Nagbe can tuck in a little bit more on the right with Alvas Powell pressing on at right back. Moreover, Nagbe’s presence on the right provides an added layer of defensive cover in front of Powell. Gaston Fernandez is in his most natural midfield position in the middle of the attacking-midfield level, as that spot in the Timbers’ 4-2-3-1 can be played like a second forward or like a true number-ten. With Fernandez high, Nagbe would be deployed a little bit deeper, where he serves to facilitate transitional play more than final-third playmaking. As such, Nagbe is put primarily in the role within the offense at which he truly excels (transition) while the final-third duties fall primarily on Fernandez, Wallace, and whoever Porter has up top at the moment. So, even with the Asprilla variable, barring the young Colombian making a massive impression in camp, the conventional wisdom appears to remain the likeliest scenario for Porter’s attack.
Option 2: Wallace – Nagbe – Asprilla
Even if the status quo ante may be the likeliest setup, Asprilla gives Porter the option to spread the field and look to be a little bit more direct with true wingers on both sides. Unlike Nagbe, Asprilla appears more inclined to play closer to the touchline. In this scenario, Nagbe would be moved to the middle to exploit the spaces opened by the Timbers’ midfield width with his on-ball prowess. The interplay with Asprilla and Powell would be interesting as well, with Powell’s ability to cut inside from the fullback position becoming more valuable as a result of Asprilla’s tendencies. Although Powell has some development yet to take place in his link-up play, he certainly has the technical ability on the ball and power to cause problems as a sort of inverted fullback. Notably, this setup would likely look a lot more like a 4-3-3, as Nagbe would naturally float deeper through the middle third with Wallace and Asprilla pushing higher.
The downsides – or at least uncertainties – are twofold here, however. First, Asprilla’s defensive commitment remains to be seen – something that is a little bit more important on the right side of the Timbers’ midfield than the left. Second, this puts a lot of onus on Nagbe in and around the box, a place where he famously had the yips in 2014. But if Asprilla can do his defensive due diligence and Nagbe can be a bit more decisive around paydirt, this lineup could give the Timbers an interesting look in going a bit more direct when opponents try to press.
Option 3: Asprilla – Fernandez – Nagbe
When healthy Rodney Wallace has been nothing but good dating back to Caleb Porter’s arrival in 2013. But with Asprilla newly on board and capable of playing on either wing, Wallace faces a meaningful threat to his job perhaps for the first time since he earned it in 2013. While Steve Zakuani was always a little bit of a flyer for the Timbers, Asprilla appears to be a young prospect with the potential to challenge for a place in the lineup. Wallace, however, has shown absolutely no sign of relinquishing his spot on the left wing, making this setup a distant third in likelihood. Nonetheless, if Asprilla shows the Timbers just have to put him on the field, this setup would be in keeping with the Timbers’ style and put Fernandez and Nagbe in their most natural spots.
2. Centerback Competition
Essentially every Timbers observer has Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell written in pen as the opening-day starting centerback tandem. And, injury notwithstanding, this assumption appears to be a relatively safe one.
But even if this assumption is borne out, it gives short shrift to the presence of Norberto Paparatto on the depth chart. Papa had a disastrous start to 2014 that saw him lose his spot in the lineup. Nonetheless, steadily improving play and injuries on the backline saw Paparatto start and play well down the stretch, including in three of the Timbers’ last four games in 2014. Indeed, by season’s end Paparatto had done enough to force the Timbers and their supporters to reexamine the previous thinking that the Argentine defender’s signing had been a flop. If Paparatto can continue the momentum he built late in 2014, he could end up mounting a viable challenge to break into the starting eleven. At the very least, if Paparatto’s early-2015 form more closely mirrors his late-2014 quality than his first impression, he will provide the Timbers depth at a position at which they have historically been quite thin.
3. Rookies Breaking into the First Team
Although the impending debut of T2 suggests most of the Timbers draftees are likely to spend their first year with the second team, each of Portland’s rookies will get an opportunity to prove they deserve otherwise in camp. Although the Timbers’ lower draft picks – Kharlton Belmar, Anthony Manning, Christian Volesky, and Seth Casiple – each appear unlikely to spend 2015 with the first team, Nick Besler and Andy Thoma have a puncher’s chance at proving themselves capable.
As for Besler, it appears likely the former Notre Dame captain could open the season with the first team (and potentially make some 18s) while Will Johnson finishes his recovery from a broken leg. Although it would be surprising if Besler beat out Ben Zemanski for third on the defensive central midfield depth chart once Johnson returns (which would otherwise likely spell a trip to T2 for Besler) it isn’t out of the question that the rookie could pose a challenge.
Similarly, Thoma comes in as a highly rated prospect at a position where the Timbers’ depth is less certain. Although the Timbers think they may have found a diamond in the rough with Jeanderson, it is clear he is less assured signing than a player with a beefier resume. Accordingly, if Thoma impresses in preseason, he may find himself in position to be a genuine first-team option in 2015.
4. The Timbers’ Approach
As 2014 wore on Caleb Porter learned the 2014 team was more successful when it sat a little bit deeper, unlike the 2013 team that was defined by its high pressure. Indeed, there were times in 2014 when the Timbers were punished for an overly aggressive approach, with the team seeing success later in the season with a bit more pragmatism.
It will be interesting, then, to see which approach Porter uses to start in 2015. In both 2013 and 2014, Porter set the team up to press hard early in the season (when opposing attacks aren’t quite as organized), while dialing it back late. This worked quite well in 2013 even if the Timbers struggled with the pressure a little bit the next year. Will Porter, then, revert to the high pressure he has empoloyed early in each of the last two season, or will the coach stick with the somewhat dialed-back approach that the team succeeded with late in the year?
5. Rules for Movement between the Timbers and T2
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty remaining in how the Timbers will shape their roster are the rules regarding how freely players will be able to move between the first and second teams. Although there has been some speculation about how this will work, in classic MLS fashion we know very little about the mechanics of the interactions between MLS clubs and their USL-Pro affiliates. Indeed, it is possible many of the rules have not yet been finalized because they are part of the ongoing CBA negotiations.
But the freedom with which players will be able to move between the teams will have a significant impact on if, and at what positions, the Timbers look to add more depth to their first-team roster. If, on one hand, there is relative freedom of movement between the teams (at least for some subset of players), the functional distinction between a player with a Timbers contract or a T2 contract becomes largely academic. In this instance the Timbers could rely on T2 players for first-team depth while keeping the Timbers roster restricted to those players in contention to make the 18 on a weekly basis. If movement is restricted, on the other hand, the Timbers will have to be more deliberate in whom they sign to a first-team or T2 contract, and likely augment the first-team roster with additional veteran depth.