The Portland Timbers are set to open the season against the Columbus Crew in just two short days, kicking off 2016 with a rematch of the 2015 MLS Cup Final. It might feel like just yesterday that the Timbers were in Columbus, raising the cup, but with a full offseason separating us from that fateful day there is plenty to catch up.
To get the latest information on the Crew, we linked up with our SB Nation sister site, the Massive Report for a good old fashioned question exchange. Naturally, we returned the favor, answering the Massive Report's questions as well, which you can find here.
Stumptown Footy: It hasn't been all that long since the Timbers last faced the Crew, but surely there have been some changes to the side since then; what changed for the Crew over the offseason and what stayed the same?
Massive Report: Simply, a lot stayed the same. It wouldn't be surprising if Crew SC came out on Sunday with the same starting XI as the MLS Cup Final as all of those players returned. The stated goal of the offseason was to bring back the core of the team and that was accomplished.
There are some new faces in the team though. Danish midfielder Emil Larsen will add depth to the front three attacking midfield positions and push for playing time this year. Amro Tarek could be useful on the back line, giving another big but athletic option that can play multiple positions. Ola Kamara (yes, the team now has two Kamaras) could be interesting as a backup to Kei, but could also carve his own niche as a player that likes to get behind the defense up top. MLS veterans Conor Casey and Corey Ashe both bring experience and talent to a team looking to make another run.
While they aren't new players, this is the first preseason for Harrison Afful, Gaston Sauro, and Cedrick Mabwati. Those three were all a big part of the success of last season once they arrived and having them return for a full year will also benefit the Black & Gold.
Kei Kamara's new contract was certainly one of the most visible stories to come out of Columbus over the offseason. Kai may have gotten his new deal, but will he be able to live up to the expectations that he set with last year's career-high goal-scoring performance?
Asked about how many goals he can score this year, Kamara recently said he believes he's got more in him than last year. Now that would be impressive considering his previous best goal-scoring output in MLS was 11 in 2012. As Kamara likes to remind us, African players tend to hit their stride late in their career, so maybe he can have another remarkable season.
I think the big question is health for Kamara. Last year he was healthy the entire season and that certainly helps in the Golden Boot race. Can he maintain fitness this year and will Berhalter play him the same amount of minutes?
I could see a step back for Kamara, but not a major one. I think he's perfectly capable of flirting with 20 goals again unless something unfortunate happens.
The Crew outscored all but two other playoff teams during the 2015 season, but allowed more goals than all but two playoff teams as well. Will the 2016 Crew again be an attacking juggernaut with a defense that could fall apart at any second, or have changes been made to the DNA of the team that will re-shape their results?
The belief is changes have been made and that started last year. Columbus had two shutouts to close out the regular season and allowed just six goals in the run to MLS Cup. The attacking approach from Gregg Berhalter isn't going to change, but the addition of Sauro and a little more smarts from some of the players offensively helped at the end of the year.
With that said, the Crew SC defense was leaky again in the preseason. Through four games, the club allowed six goals and two of those were against USL opposition. Preseason results don't mean much, but it certainly doesn't quiet any questions about this back line.
I see Columbus being improved defensively, but I don't think they'll be one of the best defensive teams in the league. Berhalter's system is all about attacking possession and in a league that is fairly balanced from team to team, you're going to give up the ball and have issues on the counter attack. The hope is the players are better equipped to deal with that than they were a season ago.
Projected Starting XI:
Harrison Afful-Michael Parkhurst-Gaston Sauro-Waylon Francis
Ethan Finlay-Tony Tchani-Wil Trapp-Hector Jimenez
Francis was dealing with an ankle injury suffered in the last preseason game, but Berhalter said he was good to go and he looked fine in practice this week. Justin Meram spent the first part of preseason recovering from offseason surgery. He said he's 100% but didn't feature too much with the starters in preseason. That's why I went with Jimenez, though it wouldn't be surprising to see Meram get the start.