2016 wasn’t good.
The refrain bouncing around all corners of the internet the last several months is equally true for the Portland Timbers, who come out of 2016 having nothing to show for what was supposed to be a thrilling follow up to their MLS Cup-winning 2015 campaign.
But the last day of 2016 is upon us, which provides a cosmic (albeit not entirely rational) opportunity to turn the page on a year that has been a significant disappointment in nearly every respect for the Timbers.
And so here are some of the challenges and opportunities facing the Timbers as a club and as a team in the new year:
Team Opportunity: The attack — Lost among a bad season was a simple fact: The attack, as a whole, wasn’t bad. The Timbers’ 48 goals were third in a defense-heavy Western Conference, and although the offense went through some very boom-and-bust cycles, that was largely a function of relying almost exclusively on Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri. But therein lies the opportunity: Both of those players appear to be coming back in 2017, and the Timbers look to be retooling around them. If the Timbers can get even solid production from their reshaped wings, 2017 could be full of goals.
And there’s reason to think they can.
If the Timbers can sign a true right winger (apparently, as Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep reported, using a DP spot), the natural move would be to shift Darlington Nagbe to the left wing, his most productive position. And if the Timbers can bring Rodney Wallace back to town, they’d suddenly have a deep and flexible winger corps to complement the prolific Adi and Valeri. Add in the prospect of Darren Mattocks (who could also be in line to get minutes as true forward depth), and on paper the Timbers’ depth chart in the attack would look poised to move beyond the Adi and Valeri reliance of the past two years.
Team Challenge: The centerbacks — No position on the field regressed in 2016 as much as the Timbers’ centerbacks. Buoyed by the healthy and dominant Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers in 2015, the centerback corps went into the tank in 2016. Ridgewell missed 12 league games and had a disappointing season even when he was in the lineup. Borchers took a step back before cruelly succumbing to a ruptured Achilles tendon. Jermaine Taylor showed well in preseason before largely faceplanting when the games counted. Steven Taylor pulled a Bob Bradley when he was brought in to make a sinking backline sail. And Gbenga Arokoyo was hurt.
Borchers and the Taylors are now gone, but the centerback depth chart (which, granted, appears to not yet be complete) still has considerable risk. Ridgewell is the surest bet on the roster, but questions about his calf and whether 2016 was just a blip or a sign of regression linger. Arokoyo certainly has the resume of a good (and maybe very good) MLS centerback, but he very much remains a mystery. Roy Miller is poised to join the squad, but his history with New York Red Bulls is legitimately troubling, even if more recent performances with Saprissa and Costa Rica provide hope that he’s a better player than he showed primarily at left back in Harrison. And Rennico Clarke appears poised for a call-up to the first team, but occasional (and understandable, given his development curve) lapses with T2 call into question whether he’s ready to be thrust into considerable MLS action.
So there’s risk up and down the centerback depth chart that could very justifiably give Timbers fans heartburn. Don’t get me wrong: This current group could be good. If Ridgewell return to 2015 form and health, if Arokoyo lives up to his billing, if Miller plays like he did with Saprissa, and if Clarke is ready to play at the MLS level, the Timbers could have ample quality and depth in central defense.
But each of those many “ifs” comes with significant uncertainty, suggesting bringing in a steady-handed insurance policy to fill out the depth chart may be worth the investment.
Club Opportunity: The development structure — Perhaps the Timbers’ biggest success in 2016 was with everything going on beneath the first team. T2 brought in an enticing young winger in Victor Arboleda, and stocked up on youthful talent including Augustine Williams and Dylan Damraoui. The Academy produced its first homegrown player in Marco Farfan (who broke out with T2 at left back) and saw big things out of Blake Bodily (who is taking an intriguing gap year to play a full season with T2 in 2017). Terrell Lowe who earned a pair of U-19 national team caps and looked promising at right back for T2 before going to the University of Virginia where he started 18 games and earned ACC All-Freshman honors. Academy alumnus Foster Langsdorf (a junior) led NCAA national champions Stanford with 15 goals and won PAC-12 Co-Player of the Year while fellow Timber Sam Werner (a redshirt sophomore) continued to carve out a consistent role for himself in the Cardinal midfield.
Just a year ago the Timbers’ pipeline looked bleak. But thanks to some key signings and a few breakout seasons, the Timbers’ farm is now in much better shape. Moreover, for the first time in a while, the first team is ready to benefit from the yield with Farfan already on the team and Arboleda and Clarke potentially making the MLS roster as well.
The impressive work Larry Sunderland and Andrew Gregor have done over the course of 2016 has made it so the Timbers’ pipeline is no longer an organizational weakness. It would be premature, however, to call the farm an organizational strength.
But another year as good as 2016 could change that.
Club Challenge: Providence Park expansion — Depending on your perspective, this could qualify as an opportunity. But with every passing offseason it becomes clearer and clearer that MLS clubs — at least the elite MLS clubs — are going to start spending a lot more money.
It’s easy to demand that the Timbers front office spend more on payroll, but the reality is it would be foolish (and dangerous) to do so without the revenue to cover the increased expenses. The Timbers right now are in solid financial position to make the jump to remain competitive in MLS over the coming years and decades, but they’re going to need to continue to grow their revenue base in order to do so.
And in the relatively near term that means expanding Providence Park in a way that opens up space in the stadium for at least a good chunk of the 10,000+ on the Timbers’ season-ticket waiting list, and drives additional revenue that can be re-invested back into the roster. Timbers owner, Merritt Paulson, stated this fall that he’s cautiously optimistic about a plan to expand the east side of the stadium to add approximately 4,000 seats, which is a promising development given the space limitations that the Providence Park property presents.
Getting these things done is never easy, however, especially in light of the difficult political hurdles with the City of Portland. But over the course of the year the Timbers need to put themselves in a position to put metaphorical shovels in the metaphorical ground.
That is certainly an enticing prospect, but it’s also unquestionably going to be a challenge.