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Top-10 Timbers Stories of 2017

MLS: MLS-MVP Press Conference Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

2017 has been quite a year in the soccer existence of the Rose City. Although it was the Thorns who made the biggest splash by winning the NWSL championship, the magnitude of that accomplishment is only put in further perspective by the Portland Timbers stories that it eclipsed.

So let’s take a spin back through the year that was in 2017 and count down the top-10 Timbers stories of the year.

10. Marco Makes History

The announcement came in the fall of 2016, but the impact reared its head in 2017. In October of last year the Timbers signed Marco Farfan as the first homegrown player to come through the Timbers Academy. Although he was expected to spend most or all of the season with T2, Farfan made an immediate impact with the first team in starting four of the Timbers’ first seven games and impressing along the way. Injuries, the playoff chase, and a little bit of a quick hook conspired to limit Farfan’s first-team minutes the rest of the way, but the then-18-year-old’s debut was enough for Farfan to stake a claim as an exciting part of the club’s future.

9. Timbers Sign Sebastian Blanco

What a year. A DP signing at number nine.

And that’s no indictment of Blanco, who put together an at-least solid eight-goal and eight-assist debut campaign in Portland.

The Timbers’ protracted pursuit of Blanco riveted (and frustrated) the front office and fans alike through much of the winter bridging 2016 and 2017, but the Timbers finally sealed the deal on February 1st. The result was basically what the Timbers bargained for: When everybody was healthy Blanco was an excellent addition to the Timbers’ attacking triumvirate with Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, and when injuries and dips in form struck Blanco showed he could step up and become a pillar of the attack.

To some extent, however, the jury remains out on Blanco’s signing. Although he was asked to be a tertiary option in the Timbers’ attack in 2017, his role is only going to grow in the next couple years as Diego Valeri enters the twilight of his spectacular career. How Blanco rises to that challenge will largely determine how folks in Portland remember Blanco’s time in the Rose City.

8. Kings of Cascadia

After bungling away the Cascadia Cup on the final day of 2016, the Timbers found regional redemption in 2017. A trio of 2-1 wins over the Whitecaps including an unlikely turning-point triumph at BC Place in July powered the Timbers to their first Cascadia Cup since 2012.

7. Defensive Downturn and Turnaround

After a fast start, the story of the Timbers’ first 21 games was its leaky defense. Through that stretch the Timbers conceded 35 goals (1.67 per game), which landed them comfortably in the bottom five in MLS. Although the attack did enough to keep the Timbers’ heads above water, the defense turned what could — even should, if you look at the advanced metrics underlying the Timbers’ defensive performance — have been a run atop the West into a dance with the red line. And the letdowns came at the worst possible times; through the spring and early-summer the Timbers dropped 10 points in the final 10 minutes of games.

Then it got better. Over the last 13 games of 2017 the Timbers conceded only 15 goals (1.15 per game), and, perhaps even more importantly, stopped dropping results late in games. As a result the Timbers finished the season in the middle of the pack in most defensive metrics. The (belated) addition of Larrys Mabiala, (somewhat) improved health of Liam Ridgewell, and probably some defensive progression to the mean helped power the Timbers to a late-season run that lifted them from the playoff bubble to the top of the West.

6. Providence Park Expansion

That escalated quickly. After being little more than a pipe dream to start 2016, rumors of a Providence Park expansion project started bubbling up in the winter before the 2017 season. By April we had renderings. And by June it looked like the City was on board. And, lo and behold, by November we had shovels in the ground. What is often a long, bump-filled process of obtaining various City approvals turned out to be refreshingly quick and painless for the Timbers’ bid to expand Providence Park.

The skinny of the expansion is the Timbers and Thorns plan to add approximately 4,000 seats to the east side of Providence Park by the spring of 2019, bringing the stadium’s capacity up to about 25,000. The expansion will add a mixture of premium and standard seating to the stadium, somewhat relieve the Timbers’ bloated season-ticket waiting list, and bring Providence Park back up above the median capacity for MLS venues. And all signs indicate it will be pretty stunning.

5. Farewell, My Darlington

The second of two bombshells in the fall fell when, in early December, reports broke that the Timbers and Atlanta United had agreed to a trade involving MLS-original Darlington Nagbe, Gbenga Arokoyo’s salary-cap hit, and a boatload of allocation money. Those reports panned out as the Timbers sent Nagbe and Arokoyo to the Five Stripes in exchange for a complicated return that included $650,000 in 2018 general allocation money, $100,000 in 2019 general allocation money, $300,000 in 2018 targeted allocation money, and up to $600,000 in conditional (and very difficult to achieve) incentive-based targeted allocation money.

Although Nagbe’s exit has been discussed before, it was nonetheless a shock for a player who has played more than 18,000 league minutes for the Timbers to leave the club so abruptly. Gone as Nagbe may be, however, they can’t take this away:

4. Injuries at the First, Injuries at the Last

Perhaps the most consistent feature of the Timbers 2017 on-field saga was the constant stream of injuries that hampered Caleb Porter’s side through much of the regular season. From Liam Ridgewell missing 19 games to Fanendo Adi missing 12 matches to a consistent stream of knocks, knicks, and niggles, Porter was scarcely able to play his first-choice eleven in 2017. And the parade of injuries not only contributed to claiming the job of head athletic trainer Nik Wald, but also sparked a club-wide review of the medical and sport-science programs.

It looked, for the most part, like those issues were clearing up near the end of the season. Ridgewell was back. Adi looked poised to return after a series of setbacks. But then a new wave hit during the playoffs with David Guzman, Sebastian Blanco, Larrys Mabiala, Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Darren Mattocks, and Roy Miller all going down for at least a period leading up to or during the Western Conference semifinal.

Why wasn’t the Timbers’ 2017 more than it was? Any answer has to prominently feature the team’s plague of injuries.

3. Top of the West, But Little to Show for It

Despite the injuries and a balky defense, the final table brought a huge piece of validation for Caleb Porter and company: For the second time in five years the Timbers finished atop the Western Conference after the regular season. To be sure, the West was a peloton throughout much of the year with little in the way of true breakaway teams, but in light of the adversity the Timbers faced finishing atop the conference was nonetheless an impressive accomplishment.

And ordinarily it would come with a significant reward: A berth in CONCACAF Champions League. Not this year. As a result of CCL format changes, the United States only had two berths into the 2019 tournament in 2017 rather than the ordinary four. Those berths went to the US Open Cup winner and the MLS Cup winner (or, as it turned out, NYCFC, the American team with the best regular-season finish). So, while the Timbers’ triumph in the West was impressive and validated their remarkable ability to overcome adversity, it was also lacking in tangible reward.

2. Porterland No More

The offseason’s biggest bombshell wasn’t Nagbe. It came on November 16th when reports indicated Caleb Porter abruptly left the Timbers after five years as head coach. The reasons for Porter’s departure remain unexplained, much to the dissatisfaction of many in Portland.

In his five seasons in the Rose City, Porter led the Timbers out of their MLS growing pains, finished atop the Western Conference table twice, and won an MLS Cup. To call his tenure in Portland a success, therefore, would be a considerable understatement.

Less than a month later, however, the Timbers were reported to have hired former New York Cosmos manager Giovanni Savarese to succeed Porter. Savarese’s hiring went official on December 18th, with an introductory press conference expected to take place in January.

1. Build the Statue

A successful, long-tenured coach abruptly leaving the club would be the top story in virtually any other year. But coaches come and go. MVPs are forever.

On December 4th Diego Valeri was named the 2017 MLS Most Valuable Player. Valeri became the first top-flight Portland athlete to be named MVP since Bill Walton in 1978, further cementing his already-solidified status as the greatest Timbers player of all time. How did he do it? Well, 21 goals and 11 assists didn’t hurt, and neither did becoming only the second player in MLS history to register at least 20 goals and 10 assists in a single season. Also helpful? Setting an MLS record with goals in nine consecutive games in the late-summer and fall, during which time Valeri (together with an improving defense) led the Timbers on their climb up the table.

Although it won’t (and shouldn’t) happen until his time on the field for the Timbers is over, Valeri’s MVP season virtually guarantees that his likeness will adorn the plaza outside Providence Park. The statue, it seems, is destined to be built.