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Grading the Timbers: The Midfield and the Wingers

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Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday we assessed the season that was for the Portland Timbers' goalkeepers and backline. Today we move up into the midfield and look at the Timbers' d-mids, attacking central midfielders, and wingers.

The Defensive Midfielders

Diego Chara, A:  The Timbers' original designated player keeps justifying his status as the club's first big-time signing. Chara started the season strong in the 4-2-3-1 despite playing with a variety of central-midfield partners. But the most impressive moments of Chara's season came when the Timbers shifted to the inverted 4-3-3, isolating Chara in front of the backline and asking the typically aggressive ball-winner to disrupt opposing attacks, protect Zone 14, and maintain the team's shape without the full-time benefit of a running mate. Despite the magnitude of the ask, Chara was more than up to it, with the result being an unexpected October surge that elevated the Timbers from the fringes of the playoff race to third in the conference, and, eventually, an MLS Cup.

Will Johnson, D:  This isn't an indication that Johnson's play was poor. It wasn't. Although there are certainly correlation-over-causation arguments to be made here, the team was 7-2-3 in Johnson's 12 starts. Simply put, if Johnson was poor in the center of the park, the Timbers wouldn’t have been so successful with him in the lineup. And there is reason to think that perhaps 2016 could be Johnson's true comeback year with the medical procedures related to Johnson's leg break now behind him. But if, as many expect, the Timbers look to go to the single-pivot 4-3-3 on a regular basis in 2016, it's hard to see where Johnson fits into the everyday starting XI with Darlington Nagbe emerging as an excellent number-eight. And unless Johnson is slated to be in the lineup on a regular basis, it's hard for the Timbers to justify a reported salary-cap hit north of $300,000. And although the mechanics of moving Johnson are far from simple, in light of Johnson’s statements to Prost Amerika after the MLS Cup Final, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Johnson will start 2016 elsewhere. This, of course, isn’t fair to Johnson, whose service to the Timbers has been extraordinary. But it’s hard to argue the move isn’t in the club’s best interest after the Timbers won MLS Cup in a system that he simply doesn’t fit into.

Ben Zemanski, INC:  What should have been a breakout year for Zemanski with Johnson on the mend turned into a lost season after a preseason ACL injury. Although Zemanski is well on his way to recovery, his injury only adds to the uncertainty surrounding the future of the defensive-midfield position.

Jack Jewsbury, A:  Is there anything that Jack Jewsbury can't and won't do for this club? From 2011 to 2015, Jewsbury has done whatever the club has asked of him, filling attacking, box-to-box, and defensive roles in central midfield, reinventing himself as a fullback, and then, in 2015, re-reinventing himself as a true holding midfielder. And in 2015 Jewsbury didn't just do so adequately; he did so excellently. Moreover, Jewbsury continued to stand tallest in the biggest spots, scoring two stoppage-time winners without which 2015 would have been very different. It is fitting, then, that Jewsbury re-signed with the Timbers on Monday, all but ensuring that Jewsbury will retire right where he belongs.

George Fochive, A-:  2015 was nothing short of career-changing for Fochive. Although a couple rough late-season performances showed he still has some work to do, Fochive went from a borderline MLS prospect to start the season to a viable option for the future of the Timbers' central midfield. The injuries above him on the depth chart provided the University of Connecticut alumnus an opportunity, and he certainly seized it. If he wants to become a regular member of the Timbers' starting eleven, however, Fochive is going to have to become sharper tactically and much cleaner on the ball. But standing among the shards of Fochive's shattered expectations to date, would you bet against him?

Nick Besler, D:  In a season that should have provided an opportunity for the fifth pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft to break into the first team, Besler struggled to adjust to the professional game and find his footing at T2, as slow decision-making and imprecise distribution kept  far from cracking the lineup at Providence Park. Besler started to settle into T2 toward the end of the season, however, closing out the summer with a handful of performances strong enough to provide a ray of hope for the future. Although the Timbers didn’t pick up his option for 2016, it seems likely the club’s continued negotiations will result in a return to the Rose City for the rookie. In other words, Besler probably has one more year to turn that ray of hope into regular sunshine.

The Attacking Central Midfielders

Diego Valeri, C+:  Valeri was good in 2015. Eight assists in 22 regular-season games and a playoff re-emergence as an elite attacking threat is nothing to shake a stick at. And his early goal in MLS Cup set the tone for a game that the Timbers seized command of very early. But let's be honest, we're used to seeing so much better than good from Valeri, who struggled to find his summer-2014 dominance until very late in 2015. On the bright side, however, Valeri finished the season healthy for the first time as a Timber, and, as a result, should have a full preseason with the team for the first time since his arrival in 2013. In addition, despite turning 30 next May, there really isn't any reason to start smelling the milk carton on Valeri, as his technique-and-vision-dependent game lends itself well to effectiveness into his 30s (see Morales, Javier). So, in short, although 2015 was a little bit of a frustrating season for the Timbers' primary playmaker, there is plenty of reason to expect a return to full form in the future.

Darlington Nagbe, B:  If we graded solely based on the months of October, November, and December, Nagbe would get an A+, as Nagbe's late-season growth made longtime observers resemble the Ron Paul "It's Happening" .gif for more than two consecutive months. But there was a fair amount of relative rain before Nagbe's blossom; as for much of the season Nagbe's production did not come close to matching his quality. But the shift to the 4-3-3 put Nagbe in the transitional role at which he has always excelled and revealed more defensive chops than anybody expected. Thus, the progress that Nagbe showed in the fall, his fit within the inverted 4-3-3, and his first USMNT call-up all provide reason for a great deal of optimism about what's to come from Nagbe.

Gaston Fernandez, C+:  The year started borderline disastrously for La Gata, as he deservedly lost his presumptive role as Valeri's understudy while the Maestro recovered from his ACL injury. As a result, Fernandez was in the woods for much of the spring and appeared to lose interest in what was, to that point, a sputtering 2015 campaign. But La Gata came back around in the summer and provided a major shot in the arm for the Timbers while Valeri was out with a sprained ankle. With Valeri back from injury, however, Fernandez's place within the team was always going to be pushed toward the periphery, and, as a result, the Timbers did the right thing by allowing La Gata to return to Argentina to seek a larger role in the twilight of his career.

Michael Nanchoff, C: Sort of a ho-hum season on the field for Nanchoff, who struggled to find any meaningful playing time behind the myriad bigger named in the midfield. Accordingly, although Nanchoff’s contributions to the locker room aren’t insignificant, his future with the Timbers appears very much in doubt after the club declined his option this week.

The Wingers

Rodney Wallace, B-:  Quietly effective. That's probably the best way to describe most of Wallace's 2015 campaign, as a considerable dip in goalscoring was balanced by a career-high seven assists. What hasn't changed about Wallace, however, is the tireless two-way work that he does to make Jorge Villafana's life easier and, in the late-season 4-3-3, covers for the defensive midfielder's inability to rotate too early. Wallace has always been a player whose value was even greater than his goalscoring production and, although the lack of final product from the wings certainly hurt the Timbers through much of 2015, Wallace's ability to otherwise contribute is all the more important during goalscoring droughts.

Dairon Asprilla, C:  This isn't altogether surprising for a young international attacker, but Asprilla's 2015 can only be described as inconsistent. After showing some flashes early in the season, Asprilla struggled to put it together (in part because of a bad ankle sprain) through the summer and eventually fell out of favor in the fall. Asprilla's best performances, however, came in a very late-season and playoff surge, which could very well be an indication that things are starting to come together for the toolsy winger. Oh, and did you see this goal? Yes? Watch it again.

Lucas Melano, C-:  Melano suffered from much the same inconsistency as Asprilla. Clearly lacking familiarity with the system and his teammates, Melano struggled mightily to link up with his teammates at times. The man who was brought in for a club-record transfer fee, however, found a way to pop up in spots and make an impact, with no bigger moment than his deal-sealer in the second leg of the Western Conference Finals. Those impact moments suggest that with a preseason to get comfortable and put things together, Melano could yet turn into the attacking force that the Timbers hoped for when they brought him in.

Ishmael Yartey, D-:  The Timbers took a flyer on Yartey to see if, at age 25, there was still something to be made out of the former Benfica prospect. Answer: Nah. The Yartey move, however, is still the kind of move you want to see the Timbers making on a regular basis; a low-risk, potentially high-reward short-term loan for a talented but wayward player. More often than not flyers are going to turn out like Yartey. But once in a while they'll be Lee Nguyen, Mike Grella, or Sebastian Lletget.