The Portland Timbers have only been in preseason for four days, but already we are coming up on the team’s first friendly of 2017 as the side set themselves to face off against the New York Red Bulls down in Tucson, AZ.
The match will be the first played by any team in Major League Soccer this year, kicking off the 2017 season in earnest. For their part, the Timbers should be able to field a mostly complete side in this match as the side are missing only a handful of pieces that should be with them by March.
Darlington Nagbe is still away with the United States Men’s National Team, Roy Miller remains with C.D. Saprissa through the end of February, and Sebastian Blanco is not actually a Timber (yet?), but the Timbers do have new additions Jeff Attinella and David Guzman; draft picks Jeremy Ebobisse, Michael Amick, Russell Cicarone, and Romilio Hernandez; T2 signings Rennico Clarke, Victor Arboleda, and Kendall McIntosh; recently announced signings and re-signings Amobi Okugo, Dairon Asprilla, and Chance Myers; and a host of trialists and T2 players on hand already.
Of course, we should not be expecting the Timbers to trot out their first choice XI for a full 90 minutes in the opening match of the preseason. Instead two separate XI’s, each playing a half seems like the most likely thing to see from the Timbers.
(UPDATE: I am told that Porter is intending to play three groups approximately 30-minutes each. Look out in the comments for my guess at the third group.)
The First XI
In years past, the Timbers’ have started their early preseason games with their projected starters on the field, which means that we will likely see a defensive block of Jake Gleeson, Vytas, Liam Ridgewell, Gbenga Arokoyo, Alvas Powell, David Guzman, and Diego Chara to open the match.
With Nagbe on national team duty and Mystery Winger not yet acquired, the starting attacking group has a little more flexibility to it. While Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi will certainly start, and Darren Mattocks seems like a good bet to take Nagbe’s presumed spot on the left, just who will step up on the right remains in question. Asprilla, Arboleda, and Jack Barmby could all compete for minutes on the wing, and who Porter gives the start to here could give us some hint of how he sees the depth chart currently. Even Ebobisse, who most see as an out and out forward, has been mooted as a potential piece on the wing by some. Asprilla’s previous experience with the first team makes him the most likely pick here, a bet buoyed by Barmby’s experience playing on the left and in the center which could give Porter some further flexibility in constructing his second XI.
In this group there will be two key things to watch out for.
First and foremost will be the pairing of Guzman and Chara. Timbers fans know just how important a well functioning midfield tandem is to this team and if Guzman and Chara have an immediate chemistry then things are certainly looking up for the Timbers. Moreover, how Chara and Guzman play off each other and link up with the rest of the team will go a long way toward determining the Timbers’ tactical approach to 2017.
Second will be another key pairing for the Timbers: Arokoyo and Ridgewell in the center of the back line. Defense might not always win championships, but it sure helps you get there. As such, it will be important to see how well Arokoyo and Ridgewell compliment each other on the back line. Arokoyo in particular remains something of an unknown with the Timbers due to his injury history in 2017.
The Second XI
The Timbers have over 30 players in camp currently and are expected to have as many as 37 during their time in Arizona. That means that there are plenty of players on hand who will not see the field against the Red Bulls, likely including T2 players like Villyan Bijev, Dylan Damraoui, and Blake Bodily.
So who will get on the field in the Timbers’ second XI?
Jeff Attinella seems like a lock to spend a half in goal, with Rennico Clark and Chance Myers holding down the right half of the back line. Who will join them on defense remains up in the air, however, with Miller still in Costa Rica and Amick recovering from the same injury that held him out of the MLS Combine earlier this month. The two remaining spots will likely be occupied by some combination of Marco Farfan, Zarek Valentin, and trialist Jhamir Ordain. Each potential player has their appeal; Farfan could make use of the chance to prove himself against MLS-level competition, Ordain could battle his way into competition for a roster spot, and Valentin could prove his worth across the pitch now that he is in competition with two starting caliber right backs in Powell and Myers.
Paired up in the center of the pitch will likely be Okugo and Ben Zemanski. While Okugo could potentially step in at center back instead, the Timbers’ relative lack of depth at center mid means that a good preseason showing should move him quickly up the depth chart. Depth in the center of the pitch will be particularly important to the Timbers’ this year with both Chara and Guzman all but certain to spend at least one game suspended and Guzman now getting somewhat regular call-ups from Costa Rica.
Finally, the attacking group in the second XI, lacking a truly Valeri-esque attacking midfielder, could take on several different forms. If the Timbers stick with the same shape they could put Jack McInerney up top, Arboleda and Ebobisse on the wings, and Barmby at the No. 10 in a 4-3-3. Alternatively, the Timbers could switch things up and play McIninerney and Ebobisse together up top and put Arboleda and Barmby out on the wings, giving the team more of a 4-4-2 look.
For this second XI, made almost entirely of players looking to prove something, it is a little bit harder to pinpoint exactly what we should be looking for. How Ebobisse fits in with the Timbers’ other young attacking players will certainly be of interest, as will Arboleda’s ability to provide a scoring threat from out wide at a higher level. Attinella’s play in goal will also be something to watch as the Timbers will be hoping that he can push Gleeson for the starting spot throughout the season.
Watch it on: Streaming on Timbers.com
Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. PT at Kino Sports Complex in Tucson, AZ
Portland Timbers: Finished 7th in the Western Conference in 2016
New York Red Bulls: Finished 1st in the Eastern Conference in 2016, Eliminated in Conference Semifinals