It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Portland Timbers play soccer. Almost 100 days, in fact.
While Major League Soccer may not have the longest offseason in American sports — although it has grown longer in recent years — the time between November and March can seem excruciatingly too long, especially as January begins and fans starts craving any news they can get.
The last time the Timbers took the field, it was snowing in Sandy (Utah), Brian Fernandez had just entered into the MLS Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, and Diego Valeri’s contract status was up in the air. The Timbers conceded the winning goal in the 87’.
As images of players taking the practice field in Beaverton start to filter into social media feeds, however, there seems to be a renewed sense of optimism. Yes, the Timbers began last season with 12 consecutive games on the road and faltered down the stretch. Sure, there seemed to be more green smoke for clean sheets than goals near the end of the summer. But if there’s one constant in the league every year, it’s that there’s a good shot a Cascadia team makes it to the MLS Cup, so why not Portland this year?
With the preseason almost upon us and the roster coming into place, it’s about that time to start taking a deeper look at who will be taking the pitch at Providence Park come March 1.
If there’s any position that the Timbers could do with an injection of depth in, it’s at striker.
The unfortunate release of Fernandez means that 22-year-old Jeremy Ebobisse is the only returning striker on the front line. Currently the only other striker on the roster is veteran Dairon Asprilla, but it appears that Polish 99 Jaroslaw Niezgoda will join that rotation soon. Recent reports suggest that Niezgoda is undergoing a second physical and will be joining the team for its preseason in Costa Rica, so let’s assume for this article that he will be on the team come March.
Timbers’ fans know what Asprilla is capable of, and we’re not close to October yet, so the biggest question with this front line revolves around what Giovanni Savarese decides to do with Ebobisse and Niezgoda. By the end of last season, it seemed as if Ebobisse and Fernandez had developed quite the rapport and played off one another strengths quite well. Will Gio experiment with having both strikers on the field at the same time, and if that occurs, will he shepard the young American out to the wing once again, or will he try playing with a front-two?
Niezgoda is coming to Portland off of a career year in the Polish Ekstraklasa. Through 18 games, he’s found the back of the net 14 times, for 1.18 goals per 90 minutes played. The statistics and film suggests the 24-year old is an out-and-out central striker and pure finisher. He finished with only two assists this season, with one coming every 536 minutes (opposed to a goal every 77 minutes). Niezgoda won’t be the same threat Fernandez was in the winger position, so most likely he will have to start up top. Once again, Savarese could spend a chunk of the year finding out exactly what will make his front line click.
The Timbers will have a pair of solid starting players that they can play out wide. Sebastian Blanco, one of the team’s most threatening designated players, will once again be a weapon all over the field. His work ethic and versatility is almost unmatched, and it’s likely that he’ll be near the top of oppositions scouting reports. Unlike a typical wing, Blanco is often all over the field, whether it be tracking back on defense or helping the Timbers maintain possession going forwards. And of course, he's always capable of the occasional wonder strike.
On the right wing is the Timbers’ newest designated player, Yimmi Chara. The 28-year-old Colombian will be joining his brother in Portland, but looks to provide a different skill set. Chara seems to be a very dynamic and speedy winger that could cause havoc in the attacking third. He has a tendency to cut in from the right wing, which could pair nicely with Jorge Moreira’s tendency to bomb forward from time to time. Statistically, Yimmi’s numbers don’t leap off the page (3 goals, 0 assists in 8 matches in 2019), but he brings a lot to the table that might not stand out on the score sheet.
Two notable players coming off the bench that could see time on the wings are Marvin Loria and Andy Polo. Loria showed flashes of potential in a limited role off the bench last season as he made the transition from Timbers 2 standout to a reliable substitute. Like Yimmi, he has the tendency to cut in from the wing and find a teammate or even fire a shot himself. Loria has a lot of room to develop and is a youngster worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.
Meanwhile Polo, is still trying to make his mark in Portland. He’s fast, will track back, and is a reliable defender. On the offensive end is where the Peruvian has been a lacking, finding the back of the net just once in 48 appearances. If Polo can provide more on offense, then he could be the complete sub that the Timbers need; he has a long ways to go, though.
Tomas Conechny is marked as a midfielder according to the Timbers’ website, but he has also played on the wing in the past. He’s another young project that has shown plenty of upside, but he still needs to take that next step. When he does, the 21-year old could become a viable and consistent bench option for the Timbers.
The big question
With the pieces that they already possess, the Timbers should have a solid attack once again. The question is just how high is that ceiling?
Blanco is a proven winger capable of playing any role in the attack, while Ebobisse is still a rising younger player that is starting to garner looks from the national team. The wild card is the two newest acquisitions in Yimmi and Niezgoda.
It’s hard to compare the quality of play between the Polish top league and Major League Soccer, and that could factor into how quickly Niezgoda adjusts. The Pole is coming off a career year, but before his recent 14-goal season, he scored just 13 goals in the previous three seasons. Yimmi is coming from a more proven league in the Brazilian Serie A and has national team experience, but, once again, it all comes down to how well — and quickly — everything translates.
If there’s one common thread between MLS Cup contenders, it’s a solid attack that can find a way to turn the tide in a scrappy, narrow game. Those teams find ways to stretch and take advantage of the opponents back line. In LAFC that’s Vela, Rossi, and Diomande. Atlanta United won the league in 2018 behind Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, yes, but they also had Tito Villaba up front.
Competing in the Western Conference is a gauntlet that requires having a solid front line. We should know relatively early into the season if the Timbers have that.
After spending the final month and change of last season with Valeri’s contract situation up in the air, fans were finally able to breath a sigh of relief in December when it was announced that the Timbers MVP and maestro would be back in green and gold.
The Timbers’ all-time leading goal-scorer and assist man may not again reach the highs of his 2017 MVP campaign or 2018 playoff run, but the Argentinian is still one of the most respected players in the league and near deadly when it comes to leading a counterattack.
The simple question with Valeri is how many minutes his aging body can take. Will Savarese decide to bring him off the bench from time to time, or will he just give him more games off? It’s something worth at least pondering.
Valeri is already in rarefied air and has the opportunity to grow his legacy this season. If he can finish with at least four more goals, he’ll become just the third player in MLS history to score 80 goals while tallying 80 assists. It’s a good thing that he will have the opportunity to accomplish this feat in the Rose City.
Behind Valeri is the ever-reliable Timbers workhorse, Diego Chara. Don’t let his single All-Star game appearance fool you: Diego is still one of the most consistent defensive midfielders in MLS and exemplifies the importance of having a talented number six when building a team.
The Colombian’s ability to play either as a single defensive midfielder or paired up is still just as impressive today as it was when the Timbers entered MLS. Diego’s ability to put out fires by tracking back 27 yards before springing a lethal counterattack will never not be fun to watch.
On a separate note, one of the craziest statistics in recent MLS history has to be the fact that it took the Timbers 26 tries to win a game in which Diego didn’t play. That is a statistic that looks even worse considering that Chara pretty much leads the league in yellow cards every season. What happens this year when Diego *inevitably* doesn’t play? Could having another Chara on the field negate the Timbers’ struggles by some mystical factor?
In addition to Valeri and Chara, the Timbers bring back Cristhian Paredes, Andres Flores, Eryk Williamson, and Renzo Zambrano.
Paredes proved to be a good partner with Diego in the defensive midfield when he played last season, and he has so much potential to continue to grow this year. Williamson and Zambrano are both younger prospects, but they put together some solid outings last season. They may not play as much with a healthy rotation, but they proved last year that they are capable of stepping in and helping the team when needed. They should get a lot of run in the Timbers’ U.S Open Cup campaign.
The Timbers drafted another midfielder in Aaron Molloy out of Penn State.
The big question
Inevitably, throughout the season opponents are often going to sit back and allow the Timbers to have possession; it’s one of the best ways to play against a team that relies on having as little of the ball as possible. Over the years Portland has garnered that counterattacking reputation and for good reason: They are one of the most lethal teams in transition. However, it can be argued that a portion of the team’s home struggles came from game script and being forced to dictate possession. A majority of teams came to Providence Park daring the Timbers to beat them with the ball (see versus Orlando 1-1 and versus Colorado 2-2). For that to happen, it often comes down to the creativity of the midfield and the front line’s ability to take advantage of those few crucial moments.
Valeri is quite good at picking out those key passes and creating chances. Outside of him, though, does the team have enough creativity in the midfield? While they have a talented crop of defensive midfielders, none are capable of delivering those deep, line-splitting passes (think Toronto’s Michael Bradley) that create more dangerous opportunities.
Williamson has shown flashes on T2 last season that he is capable of deadly final balls from midfield, but does that translate to the next level as quickly as the Timbers might like? Recent rumors suggest the Timbers are looking into Colombian U23 international Jorge Carrascal, who could potentially fit the bill, but those are still rumors at this point.
Taking advantage of having possession was a prevalent question asked of the Timbers last season, especially during the late home stretch. It will be interesting how Portland plays this year when it dictates possession; it often just comes down to creating and executing those one to two dangerous opportunities a game.
Then again there are always teams, such as the LA Galaxy, that disregard sitting back, try to dictate possession, and then get torn to shreds by a Timbers counter.
TWO GOALS IN FOUR MINUTES FOR THE TIMBERS!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 28, 2019
Diego Valeri slices and dices through the Galaxy's defense to put the home team up two. pic.twitter.com/wWptKdAcLr
Pick your poison.
If there’s one area of the team where little has changed, it’s among the back line. Other than the departure of veteran outside back Zarek Valentin, the Timbers return all their starters healthy.
French centerback Larrys Mabiala is arguably one of the team’s defensive stalwarts. His consistency in the back is valuable, and he has proven to be a threat on set pieces. As long as he remains healthy, he should score the odd goal, but more importantly form the base of the Timbers’ spine.
Often partnered with Mabiala are Julio Cascante and Bill Tuiloma, both athletic and solid options for Saverese. Cascante’s positioning and decision-making can be questionable at times, but he flashed some signs of continued development last season and has the potential to improve even more. Tuiloma is two years younger and even more versatile than Cascante. Last season he filled gaps in the defensive line and in defensive midfield and even scored one of the team’s best goals.
Over the offseason, the Timbers made another move to bolster the depth of the centerback pool when they signed 27-year old Croatian, Dario Suparic. The Serie A-tested defender could link up well with Mabiala with his pace and ability to play the ball out of the back, but that’s hard to tell until we see the team in action.
The facet of the defense that could pose the most questions early on in the season is the outside back position. Portland has both experience (Jorge Villafana and Jorge Moreira) and youth (Marco Farfan) at the position, but there is very little depth beyond that. Having a Valentin-esque player that could fill in on either side when called upon would be nice but, as is well known, MLS loves to expand, which means those pesky expansion drafts.
Moreira and Villafana should be the penciled in starters at the position come March 1. Both are experienced and serviceable defenders that add attacking flair to the Timbers’ backline. What will be intriguing is just how aggressive Savarese might be with a pair of outside backs that like to get forward. Will he have Moreira play more of an attacking role and keep Villafana back in defense? Could he alternate which player goes forward throughout the game? Can the speed of the roster even compensate for having two defenders spending chunks of time in the attacking half? Those are just a few questions that need to be answered but also present Savarese with a good problem to have — especially when they can score goals such as these.
An intriguing prospect behind Moreira and Villafana is 21-year-old Marco Farfan. The young homegrown player started to receive more first-team minutes last season and even had a few moments in which he showed exactly why he has the homegrown tag. Unfortunately his season was derailed in August when he injured his left knee in a game against the Chicago Fire. While Farfan is still young, it would be nice to see him add another element into his game this season so when he is called upon he is ready to produce on the field.
Injuries ravaged Portland’s back-line last season, and they lost a versatile and fan-favorite player to the Houston Dynamo over the offseason. However, there does look to be a reinforcement coming soon and, if healthy, it can be a unit that will help the team win even more games.
The big question
Health. That’s it. If the Timbers are going to hold tough during the season and make a run, it will most likely come down to the literal backbone of the team.
Last season Portland struggled with remaining healthy, and that led to the back line being constantly shuffled around. Timbers fans probably saw a lot more of Claude Dielna than they wanted last season, as it seemed like every facet of the defense struggled with health at some point during the long season.
Outside of that, what the Timbers have in the back so far offers multiple tantalizing possibilities. What does Savarese plan to do with multiple outside backs who are capable of providing dangerous moments in the attack while also being able to track back? With Zuparic now in the fold, how will a potential partnership between him and Mabiala look? Could the Timbers play out of the back more?
There are so many different ways that the defense can play if it can stay healthy. It will be exciting to see just how it shapes out as the season goes along.
Portland’s not usually known for having a marquee goal keeper over the past few seasons. They’ve never had a Nick Rimando, Zack Steffan, or Tim Melia-quality shot-stopper between the sticks since Donovan Ricketts in the early 2010’s. When the national media turns its attention on Portland, the conversation often centers around the Valeris or the Blancos; never the Clarks or Atinellas. If anything, many remember Clark for his infamous gaffe in the MLS Cup Final against the team that he now plays for.
But in Portland, we know that story line is not entirely true. (Although we are still thankful for said gaffe, and that very ball resides a few blocks away at the Fanladen.)
Last season Clark had a career year in goal, and he saved the Timbers quite a few points as they clawed back into the playoff conversation. The Oakland University product finished with 84 saves and six clean sheets in 24 games played. His ability as a pure shot-stopper shone through on multiple occasions, and he also proved capable of using his feet to play out of the back if need be. If anybody had doubts about Clark heading into last season, many of them should be resolved this time around.
Just sitting here remembering when Steve Clark made this save. pic.twitter.com/wM4dYFk5XN— Major League Soccer (@MLS) December 22, 2019
In addition to Clark, Attinella will be returning to the fold come preseason after sitting out a majority of the 2019 season due to an anterior labrum tear. Jeff played just ten games last season and had some shaky moments, but is still a very solid keeper and capable of returning to his 2018 heights.
Slovenian keeper Aljaz Ivacic is listed as the third keeper and looked solid with T2 last season. It wouldn’t be surprising if he receives starting minutes on T2 and potentially even get an opportunity to play during the U.S Open Cup.
The big question
With the roster as currently constructed, the Timbers have two, proven, starting-caliber keepers on the roster. How will Savarese manage that throughout the season?
Will he start one or the other based on their individual skills and that night’s opponent? Will he have some sort of rotation to make sure both keepers get situational minutes? Will he stick with one for a majority of regular season games and go with the other for U.S. Open Cup games?
Most likely, Clark will start the season after a career year a season ago, but Attinella figures to get some minutes in the preseason.
There are definitely questions surrounding who starts each game between the sticks, but if anything, Savarese shouldn’t be worried about production when he needs to rotate his keepers.
The three solid shot-stoppers round out what is expected to be another competitive roster that isn’t even done being assembled yet. Yes, there are still many questions yet to be answered — like any team — but the Timbers have a solid base to build upon.
And now we wait. Wait until the bright lights wash over the pitch at Providence Park, the victory log arrives, the tifo is raised, and the Timbers kickoff its tenth season against Minnesota United.
March 1 cannot get here soon enough.