The Portland Timbers kick off the 2015 season tonight with a home match against recent rivals Real Salt Lake. Beset by injuries, troubled by a lack of scoring in the preseason, and just days removed from a narrowly averted strike, it is time for the Timbers to put the past in the past and play ball.
For the Timbers, the strength of the team over the last four seasons has been at the defensive midfield position. With Diego Chara, and later Will Johnson and Ben Zemanski, in the center of the park the Timbers have been one of the most possession-dominating teams in MLS.
Entering into today's match, however, the midfield is both an unknown quantity and a potential weak point. The ever-ready Jack Jewsbury will heed the Timbers' call and man the center of the pitch, but who will line up alongside him is still a mystery. Johnson and Zemanski are out with long-term injuries, while Chara could be out as well with a calf contusion picked up during the Timbers' ill-fated preseason match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Caleb Porter has been playing his cards close to his chest in the run-up to today's match, calling Chara a "game-time decision" and only vaguely speculating about the two players on the depth chart behind him: George Fochive and Nick Besler.
If Chara cannot play, which seems like a surprisingly real possibility, Fochive seems like the best bet to replace him. In his second year with the Timbers, Fochive is still regarded as a prospect and maybe not ideal for prime time, but he has also garnered some appreciative comments from Porter during the preseason. His playing style is also more similar to Chara's, a box-to-box midfielder with a penchant covering plenty of ground and winning the ball, rather than Besler's more typical "stay at home No. 6" skillset.
Strangely for the Timbers, the potential step back in the midfield has been accompanied by a solid step forward in the team's defense. While the Timbers' defense improved greatly over the course of last season as Jorge Villafana returned from injury, Liam Ridgewell joined the team, and Alvas Powell made the transition from "young man" to "the man", the team looks poised to continue improving with the addition of Nat Borchers and Adam Kwarasey to the back five.
Borchers, 33, has looked every bit as solid at the back as he did on the RSL teams that have tormented the Timbers since the team entered the league and have been regular contenders in MLS since before that. More importantly, Borchers' partnership with Ridgewell, despite being broken up by loans and CBA negotiations, has developed quickly and the pair of bearded defenders could easily turn out to be one of the league's better pairings.
For his part, Kwarasey has mostly been a quiet addition to the team, stepping in seamlessly for 2013 Goalkeeper of the Year Donovan Ricketts. That is not to say the Kwarasey is quiet on the field, however, as the 26-year-old has proven to be an organizer at the back for the Timbers both on defense and in possession in his preseason appearances. Although so far he has not been called on to make many of the big saves that Ricketts was famous for, Kwarasey did show the potential for them in the Timbers' final match of the preseason, making five saves in the 1-0 win over Norwegian side Stabaek.
The Timbers will need to lean on that defense early in the season. Beyond the injuries in the center of the park, there is one more injury that the Timbers will not end up defining their season in 2015: Diego Valeri's torn ACL.
The Maestro went down in the final match of the 2014 season, casting a pall over the offseason and guaranteeing that the Timbers' best player would not be available for the start of the season. Moreover, the loss of Valeri came at the end of a season doomed by a slow start to the year and the possibility of another such slow start without him has Timbers fans justifiably nervous.
In Valeri's absence, the Timbers' attack has needed to make some significant changes and, to date, those changes have taken two distinct forms: a 4-4-2 formation pairing Fanendi Adi and Gaston Fernandez up top while putting Rodney Wallace and Darlington Nagbe out on the wings, or a 4-3-3 with Nagbe pulling the strings from the center of the pitch while Adi, Wallace, and exciting newcomer Dairon Asprilla play up top.
The 4-4-2 seemed to be the Timbers' go-to formation for much of the preseason, but as the first team group struggled to recapture the scoring magic that they had last season en route to putting away 61 goals in 34 games, the Timbers broke out the 4-3-3 in the final two matches of the preseason and seemed to have some success with it against limited opposition. As always, Porter has remained quiet about which formation Timbers fans will see today.
Real Salt Lake
RSL have been one of the most frustrating teams of the MLS era for Timbers fans to watch the team face off against. A perpetual playoff contender since the arrival of Jason Kreis in 2007, RSL have consistently stymied the Timbers in big games. RSL knocked the Timbers out of the US Open Cup Semifinals in 2013, knocked the Timbers out of the MLS Cup semifinals in 2013, and more recently held the Timbers to a 0-0 with only three weeks to go in 2014, denying the Timbers two points that would have put them into the playoffs.
Of course, even though Real Salt Lake has been one of the most consistent teams in MLS, changes happen even there. Now in the team's second year without Kreis at the helm, now coached by Jeff Cassar, RSL is now also without the man given much of the credit for putting together such a stable core of players while still keeping the team competitive each year: general manager Gareth Lagerway.
With the old back-office cleaned out, it is now entirely Cassar's ship to steer and he is making some changes.
For the last eight seasons, RSL has been defined by their 4-4-2 diamond midfield with Kyle Beckerman as the defensive midfielder, Javier Morales as the attacking midfielder, and a variety of capable pieces filling in on the wings. Now, however, RSL has seemingly made the switch to a 4-3-3, putting Morales at the center of the midfield again but increasing the firepower in front of him.
Even in this tweaked design, the players to watch out for from RSL remain the same. Beyond Beckerman and Morales, Alvaro Saborio remains a fearsome striker to contend with at the top of the RSL formation while at the back Nick Rimando still has the same cat-like reflexes that have frustrated Timbers fans so often. The core of the team is aging, however, with those players reaching 32, 35, 32, and 35 years of age respectively.
Another key RSL player that Timbers fans will be familiar with, despite his absence from the team in recent seasons, is centerback Jamison Olave. The one-time Defender of the Year is back with the team following a two year sojourn to the New York Red Bulls and will be paired up at the center of the RSL defense with Chris Schuler, making for a very physical centerback pairing and one that will give attackers pause.
RSL is not all old hands and familiar faces, however, with some impressive youngsters and new arrivals set to make an impression this year. Luis Gil and Joao Plata are two dynamic attacking talents in the RSL ranks who could make or break the RSL season depending on their play around Morales. Plata will miss today's match with a broken foot, but Gil will be at the heart of the RSL midfield and will be one to watch.
RSL's new additions have mostly been at the back, including Brazilian defender Pecka and Jamaican international Demar Phillips. Unfortunately for the boys in claret and cobalt, both have been held back by injuries in the preseason and just how they will affect the RSL lineup is unclear at this point.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kick off: 7:30 pm pacific at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon
Portland Timbers: 0-0-0, 12-9-13 in 2014
Real Salt Lake: 0-0-0, 15-8-11 in 2014