The Portland Timbers come into the 2016 season with the weight of expectations on their shoulders. Whether it affects their play or not, the Timbers and their fans have tasted victory now and the team is going to need a new crop of players to step up if they want to continue their upward trajectory.
Thankfully the Timbers are a team with plenty of potential to go with the talent that made them the MLS Cup champions last year. So, let's take a look at three player who could step up for the Timbers in 2016.
After spending most the year making spot appearances off the bench and adjusting to his new surroundings, Asprilla finally started to show off some of the potential that brought him to Portland late in the season.
Putting in a series of clutch performances and deputizing for Rodney Wallace while the Warrior was unavailable, Asprilla was at the heart of several key moments for the Timbers, most notably serving up a perfect cross for Maximiliano Urruti's last second equalizer in the Timbers' play-in round playoff victory over Sporting Kansas City and scoring a true thunder-bastard of a goal in the Timbers' semifinal series against FC Dallas.
Still, while Asprilla impressed at the end of the year, there is still plenty for the young winger to prove. In his ten regular season starts, most of which came during the team's early season struggles, Asprilla logged one goal and zero assists. In fact, Asprilla's goal and three assists during the post-season outstrips his production from the entirety of the regular season -- one goal and two assists.
The key for Asprilla in 2016, then, will be in continuing his form from the post-season and continuing to grow as a player.
Wait, Alvas Powell? The same Alvas Powell who started 31 games for the Timbers last year?
Yes. That Alvas Powell.
2016 will be Powell's fourth season with the Timbers and in each of his previous years with the Timbers the young fullback has shown marked growth as a player.
The 2013 season saw Powell come into the team halfway through the season as a young prospect, playing only five matches, but showing off some of his sky-high ceiling. In 2014, after an ill-advised red card and subsequent loan to Sacramento Republic FC, Powell made his way back into the Timbers' starting XI and was an instant and impactful part of the team's powerful attack, notching two goals and two assists in fifteen games played. Finally, in 2015 Powell proved himself defensively, putting his excellent athleticism to use as he patrolled the right flank and racked up more tackles than any other player in the league.
Despite all that -- or maybe because of it -- the feeling that there is more to come from Powell persists. If Powell can combine the offensive outburst that he proved capable of in 2014 with the defensive prowess that he exhibited in 2015, the Timbers could find themselves with the best right fullback in the league, rather than simply one of the best.
Ben Zemanski is 27 years old -- he turns 28 in May -- and returning from the torn ACL and subsequent complications that kept him out for the entirety of the 2015 season. He has played over 100 matches in MLS and started over 70.
For a box to box midfielder, Zemanski is approaching the age at which some players are leaving their prime, rather than entering it.
But, early on in the 2016 preseason Zemanski is looking good. He was the first to finish in the team's recent fitness test; his passing and movement have looked crisp in possession drills and short field games; when scrimmaging, Zemanski has been at the heart of his side, getting the ball and looking to surge up the pitch.
Of course, until Zemanski gets some honest to goodness game time, it is just about impossible to get a good read on how well recovered he is.
If Zemanski is back to 100%, then he finds himself in an excellent position to succeed. The Timbers will, for the first time during his tenure with the team, be deploying a pair of true central midfielders, rather than a pair of holding midfielders and, while Zemanski can play either role, the opportunity to step into one of those central positions is one that the midfielder should savor.
Who do you think is primed for a big year in 2016? Let us know in the comments below.