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Timbers 101: A casual guide to the 2018 season

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Who are the Portland Timbers, anyway?

Minnesota United FC  v Portland Timbers Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The Portland Timbers’ eighth season in Major League Soccer starts on Sunday, and while you and I are all caught up on the team’s tumultuous offseason, some folks might still need to be brought up to speed. So, with the people who have not been wholly submerged in #RCTID for the past few months in mind, let’s get ready for Sunday.

Who are the Portland Timbers?

Ok, starting with the basics, I guess.

The Timbers are your local soccer club*. They play in Major League Soccer and have done so since 2011, but they have also been around in several incarnations before that, reaching all the way back to the North American Soccer League in 1975.

*Not actually in Portland? Don’t worry. For Timbers fans, Portland is a state of mind.

No, like, who are the Portland Timbers?

Well, any good rundown of the Portland Timbers should start with the two Diegos: Diego Valeri and Diego Chara.

Diego Valeri is the reigning MLS Most Valuable Player, the Timbers’ all-time leading goalscorer, and an all around good dude. Ever since he joined the Timbers in 2013 from his hometown club of Lanus in Argentina, Valeri has been the Maestro; opening up opposing defenses from the midfield with deadly passing, timely runs, and a finishing touch that has only improved since his arrival.

While Valeri is the soul of the Timbers’ attack, Chara is the heart of the team’s defense. One of only two Timbers players still with the team from the side’s inaugural season in MLS, Chara has been a terror in the midfield for the Timbers over the last seven years and has earned a reputation as an ever-present disruptive force in the center of the pitch.

The pair are mainstays of the Timbers’ midfield and as they go, so go the Timbers.

Cool. Cool. Do the Timbers have anyone who plays for the United States Men’s National Team?

Well, they used to. Darlington Nagbe, the Timbers’ first ever draft pick, was traded over the offseason to Atlanta United in exchange for a big pile of Allocation Money -- MLS’s way of trading resources and cap space between clubs.

Nagbe was a big part of the Timbers since they joined MLS and his ability on the ball is basically unmatched in the league, even if just about everyone who has ever watched him play has wished that he were just a little bit more offensively inclined.

Of course, there are a handful of Timbers that have made appearances for their respective national teams. Defensive midfielder David Guzman will likely miss some time this season with the Costa Rican national team, as will recently acquired winger Andy Polo. New forward Samuel Armenteros was capped by Sweden just last year, and the Timbers boast a trio of US youth internationals in Jeremy Ebobisse, Eryk Williamson, and Marco Farfan, so the future is bright.

So the team made some moves over the offseason?

Kind of.

The Timbers somehow made some huge changes over the offseason, while still managing to keep ten of their eleven starters from last season when they finished on top of the Western Conference.

In addition to Valeri, Chara, and Guzman, the Timbers are also returning striker Fanendo Adi, wide midfielder Sebastian Blanco, full backs Vytas and Alvas Powell, center backs Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala, and keeper Jeff Attinella. That is each of 2017’s starters except for Nagbe and should allow the Timbers to go into the 2018 season with few hiccups.

Of course, most of the players might be back, but the man in charge is not. Caleb Porter and the Timbers parted ways after last season and now Giovanni Savarese is at the helm. The former boss of the New York Cosmos has a reputation as a talented and tactically flexible coach, something that Timbers fans have already seen glimpses of during the preseason.

The Timbers have also brought in a number of new players to challenge the established starters. Armenteros made perhaps the biggest splash of the preseason after scoring four goals and notching two assists since joining the Timbers for their training camp in Tucson, but winger Andy Polo, midfielder Cristhian Paredes, and defender Julio Cascante have all received a fair amount of buzz as well.

It sounds like the Timbers will be pretty good this year.

It does sound like it, doesn’t it?

There are plenty of things that should make us optimistic about where the Timbers will finish in 2018, but there are also a few factors that should temper our optimism.

First, while the Timbers did finish on top of the West last season, the conference was extremely close and they finished only seven points ahead of the seventh place side. The Timbers were, in fact, even on points with the Seattle Sounders, only taking the top seed due to a tiebreaker.

Second, the Timbers dealt with an unfortunate number of injuries at the end of last season, the repercussions of which we do not yet fully know. Fanendo Adi missed a significant chunk of the season to end the year and has yet to make his return to form. Diego Chara broke his foot in the playoffs and has not yet played a full ninety minutes for the Timbers this preseason, and anything that hampers his ability to play a full match is a big obstacle for the Timbers to overcome.

Finally, it is an even year and the Timbers just don’t do all that well during even years.

Bummer.

Nah, it will be fine.

This year will start out a little rough as Chara and Adi get back on their feet, and the Timbers start things out with a long road spell due to the ongoing construction at Providence Park; but the Timbers are a genuinely talented side who should be able to run with anyone in the West.

Wait, so who will be on the field on Sunday?

Oh, yeah. That’s pretty important, huh?

Well, there has been plenty of speculation as to just who the Timbers will run out for their season opener against the LA Galaxy and it is hard to pin down who will be in the XI, particularly given some injury questions that are yet to be answered.

Jake Gleeson seems will get the start in goal despite a good start to the year from Jeff Attinella, largely due to an injury that kept Attinella out of the Timbers’ last preseason game and gave Gleeson a chance to show off his own shot stopping ability.

On the back line, Alvas Powell, Larrys Mabiala, and Liam Ridgewell are sure things to start, while Marco Farfan will step in for Vytas who injured his hamstring during preseason.

The midfield is where things get spicy as we could see the Timbers deviate from their standard 4-5-1 formation and go with a 4-4-2 diamond, especially if they are looking to lock down the middle of the pitch in the likely absence of Diego Chara from the starting XI. Further complicating things is the knock taken by David Guzman at the end of the Timbers’ final preseason match. While Guzman will likely be back, do not be surprised to see Cristhian Paredes waiting in the wings to step in for him.

Filling out the center of the pitch will be Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and either Andy Polo or Dairon Asprilla. Polo is the big new acquisition, but Asprilla had a very impressive preseason and could have staked his claim to the right wing.

Of course, the Timbers could also just play neither and bring in Samuel Armenteros to partner Fanendo Adi at the top of the formation. While the starting striker role must still be Adi’s, Armenteros has pushed hard for a place of his own on the pitch and would surprise no one if he had fought his way into the XI.