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Timbers in Tucson: Three Takeaways

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MLS: Desert Friendlies-Seattle Sounders vs Portland Timbers Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers returned to the Rose City from Tucson on Sunday with the first phase of preseason training camp under their collective belt.

And although both team and individual performances in Tucson should always be taken with a hefty grain of salt, the two games that were streamed on the Timbers’ website gave us a first look at a few of the positional battles going on within Caleb Porter’s squad.

Here are three takeaways from what we’ve seen from the Timbers to date.

1. If his performance against Seattle is indicative of how he’ll perform the rest of the season, the Timbers may have found a gem in David Guzman.

We’ve only seen forty-five minutes of action from David Guzman (he played against NK Istra midweek, but the Timbers did not broadcast the game), but what we’ve seen from the Costa Rican defensive midfielder is very promising.

Simply put, Guzman was the best player on the field against the Sounders.

Based on one-half of one game, Guzman very much looks like a complete number-six. He dropped deep to facilitate possession early in the attack. He distributed well out of the attack. He showed he knew when to step up to provide some early pressure. He effectively covered the backline in defense. And he won the ball mercilessly.

Watch how many of those boxes he checked in this one sequence from Saturday’s “friendly” against the Sounders.

And if you’re still missing one box from the above list, let’s tick it now:

The sample size of what we’ve seen from Guzman (again, 45 minutes) is very, very small. But if he is consistently capable of the kind of performance he put in for the Timbers on Saturday evening, Guzman himself will play a big part in ensuring 2017 is better than 2016. And — perhaps most encouraging for Timbers fans — word about Guzman’s performances in training and against NK Istra very much match his form against Seattle.

The six has been a bugaboo for the Timbers in recent years. Ever since the tandem of Diego Chara and Will Johnson took MLS by storm in 2013, the Timbers have struggled with injuries and tactical imbalance in defensive midfield. Although Caleb Porter has MacGyver’d some short-term solutions that have kept the Timbers afloat and occasionally launched them to excellence, none of these approaches have shown the potential to be a longterm solution in defensive midfield.

That’s why the Timbers signed Guzman. And if Saturday is any indication (which at this point very much remains an “if”), the Timbers may have their best permanent central-midfield tandem in four years — or ever, for that matter.

2. The Timbers centerback situation remains highly uncertain, but it’s not all bad news.

Gbenga Arokoyo’s season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury is not good news. And the continued absences of Roy Miller (still with Saprissa) and Michael Amick (second-round draft pick still sidelined by injury) haven’t done the Timbers any favors in sorting out their centerback depth chart.

At this point, this is very much cause for concern.

But if there’s been a silver lining to the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over the Timbers’ cornerback situation, it’s that Rennico Clarke has received valuable starting minutes early in camp, and the Timbers’ other young defensive depth pieces (notably including Lamar Batista, who appears poised to be Clarke’s heir apparent at T2) have figured into the action.

Now, to be clear, it hasn’t all been great from the Timbers’ young stable of centerbacks. Clarke has had some trouble staying connected with his right back, and has learned some lessons about the pace and physicality of MLS forwards.

But for every downside there has been at least a countervailing upside. Clarke, for instance, was a menace in the air and showed a nose for stepping up to disrupt an attack that is unusual for a player of his youth.

Even if the Timbers’ worrying uncertainty remains the biggest unresolved issue heading into the last month before the beginning of the regular season, therefore, it wasn’t all bad news on that front in Tucson.

3. The race to backup Sebastian Blanco remains very intriguing.

Dairon Asprilla’s first impression in Tucson wasn’t good. In a game full of disconnected play and directionless attacking soccer against the New York Red Bulls, Asprilla was perhaps the most wayward player on the field. It was a stark reminder of why Asprilla left Portland last fall.

Victor Arboleda, on the other hand, has had a quiet, but nice camp to date, making an impact in each of his appearances. The end product hasn’t been there, but the pressing and ability to stretch the opposing backline had.

If Arboleda hadn’t nudged ahead in the race to be the backup right winger after the Red Bulls game, he was knocking on the door.

And then Asprilla stepped onto the field on Saturday and looked like a completely new man. On Sunday Asprilla was a menace when he pressed, repeatedly winning balls back in the attacking half, and made himself a useful and goal-dangerous piece of the attack.

Advantage Asprilla? Well, maybe not so fast.

Against the Sounders, Arboleda was arguably the most effective Timber on the field in a second half that featured a sort of mishmash Timbers side. Although he was caught just on the wrong side of the offside line a couple times, Arboleda was a consistent problem for the Sounders playing primarily (in a mini-surprise) down the left side of the Timbers attack.

Tucson, therefore, delivered mixed messages about who will occupy the second sport on the right-wing depth chart, which makes for an interesting subplot in the upcoming preseason tournament in Portland.