With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear this was going to be a difficult offseason for the Portland Timbers as it was for many MLS teams. The reason is relatively simple: As a result of the CBA, the salary cap is lower than teams anticipated, making the 2015-2016 offseason largely an exercise in preserving their rosters rather than upgrade them.
While addressing draft strategy, Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid touched on exactly this point:
The tighter-than-expected cap in 2016 could well lead to fewer packaged trades on Thursday. pic.twitter.com/KrJQDmI7qg— Will Parchman (@WillParchman) January 12, 2016
Add to this the fact that the Timbers’ 2016 salary-cap situation is additionally burdened by MLS Cup-winning bonuses from 2015 (which, by the way, is absurd), and this Timbers offseason was always destined to be about keeping as much of the core together as possible and finding value to fill any holes.
Which only begs the question: How did the Timbers do? Let’s pass judgment on each of the major offseason losses and their replacements.
Jorge Villafaña Out, Chris Klute In
The Timbers’ transfer of Villafaña to Santos Laguna was clearly the right thing to do and, with the transfer fee reported near $1 million, ended up being a nice piece of business for Portland. But losing Villafaña, especially in light of his outstanding late-season form, left the biggest hole on the roster.
The Timbers addressed that hole by bringing in Chris Klute from the Columbus Crew. Klute, who backed up one of the best left backs in MLS in Waylon Francis, was a solid depth contributor for the Crew. Overall the Columbus defense wasn’t great in 2015, allowing 1.56 goals per game as a result of some inconsistency at centerback and an aggressive tactical approach. Columbus’s defensive output remained largely the same in Klute’s 8 starts, allowing 1.5 goals per game.
So it’s fair to say Klute wasn’t a liability for the Crew by any means. And his excellent play under Oscar Pareja at Colorado in 2013 suggests there is real talent there that can be brought out under the right circumstances.
But Klute isn’t Villafaña, and it’s likely to take a little bit of reclamation work before Klute becomes much more than an MLS-average starting left back.
Verdict: Moderate downgrade.
Maximiliano Urruti Out, Jack McInerney In
Urruti was a casualty of the salary cap, as Merritt Paulson stated on Soccer Made in Portland last week that Urruti would have carried a salary-cap hit in 2016 around $700,000.
In his stead, the Timbers brought in Jack McInerney from the Crew. Urruti had a handful of big moments in 2015 (none bigger than his season-saving finish in extra time of the elimination round), but, on the whole, Urruti’s four goals and three assists in the 2015 regular season were a major disappointment coming off Urruti’s hyper-efficient 2014. Although there is every possibility that Urruti’s production recovers in 2016, that is a bet that the Timbers can’t afford to place given the salary-cap limitations.
In McInerney, the Timbers found a younger, cheaper (though still somewhat costly) replacement whose production the past couple years has fallen somewhere below Urruti’s peak in 2014 and but above the Argentine's nadir in 2015. To call McInerney an upgrade over Urruti, therefore, would be a stretch, but he also does not represent a major downgrade.
Verdict: Roughly equivalent.
Jeanderson Out, Zarek Valentin In
After a season in which he failed to make any impact at the MLS level, Jeanderson made his way back to Brazil without significant fanfare in the Rose City.
In his place at backup left back comes Zarek Valentin from FK Bodo in Norway’s top flight, the Tippeligaen. Valentin came into the league with Chivas USA as a rookie in 2011 before being taken by the Montreal Impact in their expansion draft. In his two seasons in MLS, Valentin made 40 appearances (38 starts) for the Goats and the Impact before leaving for Norway, where he became a consistent contributor for Glimt.
Whether Valentin is ready to be a starter on a good MLS team remains to be seen, but he is at least a major upgrade at the backup left back spot and provides versatility on the backline with his ability to play either fullback spot.
Verdict: Major upgrade.
Michael Nanchoff/Gaston Fernandez Out, Ned Grabavoy In
In large part because the Timbers did not have any U.S. Open Cup games against lower-division sides, Nanchoff struggled to find the field in 2015 as he was buried on the depth chart among a crowded attacking midfield. Fernandez, of course, left midseason to seek a larger role after Diego Valeri’s return (and the lack of CCL) left La Gata without an opportunity to make consistent contributions in Portland.
Although Grabavoy isn’t an exact replacement for Nanchoff (I expect Grabavoy to feature with greater regularity) and in some way fills parts of the role vacated by Fernandez’s departure, Grabavoy essentially slots in as a do-it-all midfielder who will likely be the third choice at the 10 and on either wing, and somewhere down the depth chart as an 8. But while he fits on the overall depth chart more like Nanchoff, Grabavoy is expected to be a regular contributor in U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League, and MLS squad rotation like Fernandez.
In Grabavoy, the Timbers get an experienced and versatile two-way midfielder. Although at 32 Grabavoy is decidedly in the sniff-the-milk-carton stage of his career, it seems likely that he will at least be a genuine contributor for another year. Although not the playmaker than Fernandez was (at times), Grabavoy represents a significant upgrade over Nanchoff’s on-field production.
Verdict: Slight upgrade.
There is, of course, one major hole yet to be filled: Rodney Wallace’s spot on the wing. Although the Timbers can have some confidence in this position with both Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla coming off strong finishes to 2015, both carry with them some risk and there is little wing depth on the roster as it stands. In addition, the loss of Norberto Paparatto is yet to be formally addressed, though all signs point to Re-Entry Draft pick Jermaine Taylor stepping in as the third centerback. If the Timbers finalize their deal with Taylor (and there is no indication that they won’t) and how the Timbers replace Wallace will go a long way toward determining in the final analysis whether the post-title offseason is a success.
But on the whole to date the Timbers look to have managed a difficult offseason fairly well. The roster does not look to be significantly improved from 2015 (although both Asprilla and Melano seem poised to make significant jumps), but it also doesn’t look markedly weaker.
And in an offseason in which money is hard to come by for the Timbers and many other teams around MLS, keeping most of the core together and not losing significant ground in the handful of spots they had to fill represents solid, if unspectacular success to this point of the offseason.