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Three Questions from the Timbers’ No-Show in Vancouver

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland TimbersUS Open Cup loss to Cal FC remains the worst loss in the club’s MLS history.

But the Timbers' failure to show up for Sunday’s game in Vancouver, with both an MLS Playoff berth and Cascadia Cup on the line, gives Cal FC a run for its money. To be sure, the Timbers entered the game with structural problems caused primarily by the absences of Diego Chara, Liam Ridgewell, and Ben Zemanski. And it was clear as the game went along that neither Jack Jewsbury nor Diego Valeri were 100 percent or even particularly close to it.

With so much on the line, however, those absences don’t entirely explain the depth of the Timbers’ ineptitude on Sunday. It was, very simply put, a shameful ending to a deeply disappointing season.

The Timbers finished 2016 with 38 points at home. And six on the road. The 32-point difference between PTFC’s home and away hauls in 2016 is the most in MLS history by a whopping five points.

There is, quite frankly, little to analyze with Sunday’s effort. Yes, we could discuss how the Vancouver Whitecaps took full advantage of the Timbers’ predictable ball-winning deficit without Chara. But, at this point, that’s about as useful as it is fun.

Instead, here are three early questions heading into the Timbers’ long offseason:

1. Where do the Timbers need to overhaul the roster?

It’s tempting after a disappointing season (and disastrous finish) to burn it all down and start from scratch. And there will likely be a fair amount of burning and rebuilding on the Timbers’ roster over the course of the next three months.

But the stinging disappointment of the 2016 season aside, it’s important to keep in mind that the Timbers have a core that gives them a real chance to make 2017 play out differently than 2016. Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Jake Gleeson, and Liam Ridgewell are under club control for multiple years going forward and appear virtually certain to stay in Portland. Although Valeri, Chara, and Ridgewell are getting to a point in which it’s reasonable to begin to have concerns about when they will hit their respective regression curves (or, in Ridgewell’s case, whether he has already hit it), each of their contracts going forward are structured to account for their expected diminishing returns. For the more immediate future, however, that’s not a bad place to start.

Moreover, the Timbers’ have a handful of secondary pieces that will help fill out the roster going forward. Of the Timbers largely disappointing set of 2016 signings, Vytas was perhaps the most successful as he showed the potential of being a longterm solution at left back, especially if further acclimation next season leads to a reduction in the handful of rash defensive decisions he made in his first half-season in Portland. In addition, players like Alvas Powell, Zarek Valentin, Darren Mattocks, and (despite a nightmarish second half) Jack McInerney are capable of filling out spots in or on the fringes of the XI, although the latter may find himself on his way out as a result of that second-half swoon. And on top of that, Jack Barmby showed he could turn into a quality depth piece (at the right price) going forward.

So it wouldn’t be accurate to say the Timbers’ cupboard is bare.

But it’s also clear that Caleb Porter and Gavin Wilkinson’s roster has holes that need filling.

The departure of Rodney Wallace became crippling once Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla failed to take a step forward in 2016. Ultimately the Timbers bet big and lost big on those two. And, some positive play from Darren Mattocks late in 2016 notwithstanding, the Timbers will have to add at least one difference-maker on the wing in order to be successful in 2017.

As Caleb Porter candidly stated in his postgame press conference on Sunday, the Timbers weren’t deep enough at nearly every position in 2016. Noticeably absent was the presence of a difference-making attacking piece off the bench like the Timbers had in Maxi Urruti or Gaston Fernandez. Despite some good very early returns, Jermaine Taylor didn’t provide enough as the Timbers’ often-used third centerback. And with Zemanski suffering through a second consecutive injury-rilled season, the Timbers found themselves with no backup plan when Chara was unavailable.

Aside from defensive-midfield depth, the Timbers need to make some decisions about how they’re going to structure their midfield in the coming years. At 30, the Timbers need to plan for Chara’s motor to begin to fade within the next couple seasons, and one way to do so would be to move him to the six while bringing in a new starter (potentially a DP) at the 8. Regardless whether the Timbers see Chara as a 6 or an 8 in the medium term, the Timbers will need to make a decision on his central-midfield running mate for the coming years. This decision, of course, has ripple effects throughout the roster, including on the wing as it relates to Darlington Nagbe.

Perhaps the Timbers’ most difficult decisions, however, will be in central defense. The given in this group is with Liam Ridgewell, who recently signed a non-DP extension to keep him in Portland for a couple more years. But aside from Ridgewell it gets tricky. Steven Taylor has been a disappointment since coming aboard midseason. Gbenga Arokoyo did not play any meaningful minutes largely as a result of an injury suffered within minutes of taking the field with T2.

Arokoyo, therefore, remains a wild card. And although Taylor’s debut with the Timbers has been a disappointment, many said the same about Ridgewell’s 2014 debut before he turned in an outstanding 2015. Both players, then, present the Timbers with risk: Give up too early and let a helpful piece walk or hang on too long and fail to address an area of need.

The Timbers, therefore, have work to do this offseason to get the roster back into shape for 2017. Although there are important building blocks going forward, the Timbers are going to have to add some key pieces both to the starting XI and to the depth.

2. Will the Timbers keep Fanendo Adi and Lucas Melano?

The two players most rumored to be on their way out, Fanendo Adi and Lucas Melano, are in that status under very different circumstances.

As noted, the Timbers spent big on Melano’s potential in 2015 only to see little (if any) progress in 2016. And Melano’s failure to be productive on the wing was a huge part of the Timbers’ over-reliance on Valeri and Adi in the attack. Although, as he did in 2015, Melano showed some flashes at points during 2016, those isolated performances never turned into an upward trend line. And unless Melano is trending upward, there is really no reasonable way that the Timbers can handicap their roster structure by using a DP spot on Melano for another season.

In the past, the Timbers have been willing to swallow losses in order to part ways with expensive failures. John Spencer and Kris Boyd immediately come to mind. If the Timbers want to be competitive going forward, they’re going to have to do so again (and to an even greater extent) with Melano.

As for Adi, the uncertainty regarding his status has nothing to do with production. For the second consecutive season, Adi notched 16 goals, giving him a total of 43 in 2.5 years of MLS play. Simply put, Adi has been the Timbers’ most prolific goalscorer in the MLS era.

But in light of his midseason transfer demand and the friction caused by Adi missing the team flight to Seattle in August, it looks very possible that the Timbers’ relationship with Adi has soured to the point where it may be in the interest of all for the big number-nine to move on.

That was, at least, the conventional wisdom.

Given the scope of the changes the Timbers need to make on the rest of the roster, however, moving Adi may have become a luxury that the Timbers can no longer afford. With Adi under contract for another two years as a result of the extension he signed in the spring, the Timbers are not in a position in which they have to move Adi in order to avoid seeing him walk. Simply put, now may not be the time for the Timbers to part ways with a proven goalscorer.

So, although it’s been largely presumed that the Timbers would rather move Adi this winter and reinvest the likely considerable profits from such a move, it may be that the rest of the changes that are due for the Timbers roster and the uncertainty that comes therewith affect the calculus regarding Adi’s future.

3. Will the Timbers’ recent efforts to bolster the pipeline begin to pay off?

The one thing that has appeared to go well for the Timbers in 2016 was their systemic depth. From the Academy to T2, the Timbers’ farm system is much deeper now than it was at the end of 2015.

A system that a year ago largely hung its hat on Rennico Clarke and Adrian Villegas now boasts the following additional players who look like they could have first-team futures: Victor Arboleda, Augustine Williams, Marco Farfan (who recently signed a first-team homegrown player deal), Blake Bodily (who is taking a gap year before college to play another season with T2), and Dylan Damraoui. In addition, Villyan Bijev led USL in assists after catching fire midway through the season and leading T2 out of the depths of the USL Western Conference table.

Although some of these players (especially Williams, Farfan, Bodily, and Damraoui) likely have a little ways to go before they’re ready to contribute at the first-team level, a pipeline that was sparse a year ago now has multiple prospects to watch. And given the uncertain nature of prospect development, having multiple MLS-viable prospects is an absolute necessity.

The question, therefore, is how soon this can begin to make a difference for the first team. Without a doubt one of the factors holding back PTFC’s first-team depth has been the Timbers’ inability to bring players into the system and develop them into first-team contributors. The Timbers have historically been poor in their capacities to develop in house through the sputtering Academy and in their ability to find instant-impact players in the MLS SuperDraft.

Unlike years past, however, there are now players in that pipeline. Farfan has already been signed to the first team, although he will likely spend most of his time in 2017 with T2. Arboleda spent most of 2016 getting acclimated, but, if his recent CONCACAF Champions League call-up is any indication, may spend 2017 with the first team. Bijev, Clarke, and Williams seem likely to get calls into first-team camp in January and, if they can impress, could earn a roster spot and an opportunity to make a difference with the Timbers.

Given the number of holes that the Timbers have on the roster, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to satisfactorily sign their way to filling all of them. Simply put, signings are fickle. And unless the Timbers can start to develop their own contributors, it seems likely that the boom-and-bust cycle of the last four years will continue as the hit-or-miss nature of signings dictates the Timbers’ success.

So if the Timbers’ farm system can begin to bear fruit, PTFC may be on its way to a better 2017 and greater consistency beyond.