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Timbers focused on shoring up defense this offseason

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President and general manager Gavin Wilkinson and head coach Giovanni Savarese also reflected on what has been a strange 2020.

SOCCER: JAN 22 MLS - Portland Timbers Media Day

It’s been a busy start to the offseason for the Portland Timbers. We’ve already seen two trades — with Marco Farfan being sent to LAFC and Julio Cascante going to Austin FC — and another acquisition made official with the addition of Nicolas Claudio Bravo to the roster. Along with that, general manager and president of soccer, Gavin Wilkinson, noted that the club will not take up the options for Andres Flores or Chris Duvall. It’s a fast start to the offseason to say the least.

But the influx of moves isn’t particularly surprising. Both Wilkinson and head coach Giovanni Savarese said that moves would be made at Thursday’s end of the season press conference. The biggest key for them was making sure that throughout all these decisions they were ensuring the best possible future for all players involved.

“We’re no longer moving players just for the benefit of the club,” Wilkinson said. “I think this has been a challenging year with COVID, and for many players wand their families and we went about it a different way to actually talk about their careers, talk about the next steps within their careers and see what they want.”

There are still plenty of moves Portland needs to make. One of the points of emphasis for the club this offseason is shoring up the defense, specifically in the wide areas. They’re also looking to add a young central defender to “come through the system” for Portland as well.

Defense rightfully so should be Portland’s main area of focus this offseason. Portland put together a stellar offense despite numerous injuries to designated players and star wingers, but oftentimes the work put in by the attacking players was nullified by mistakes on the defensive end, especially late in games. No team in MLS gave up more goals in the final 15 minutes of a match than Portland (15), and it was even the thing that ended their season prematurely.

“We’re reinforcing the defense,” Savarese said. “And we can build on other positions to make sure that we continue to get better and make sure that we can be a little more competitive.”

Along with acquiring new players, Portland is hoping to keep old ones in place. Wilkinson mentioned that they’ll be looking at extending Larrys Mabiala, noting they’re still trying to figure out a solution that works for both sides. Most notably, however, Wilkinson made it clear that they’re interested in acquiring Felipe Mora permanently from Pumas UNAM.

Mora joined the Timbers on a one-year loan and was solid in 2020. In 19 appearances (12 starts), he had 7 goals and 2 assists. Jaroslaw Niezgoda is not expected to return to play until around mid-season, so having Mora available along with Jeremy Ebobisse — who often plays on the wing — would be extremely helpful.

“[Mora] is a key piece to the team for the club and a well-liked player in the locker room,” Wilkinson said. “There’s multiple reasons why he would be a benefit to the locker room next year.”

Thursday’s press conference wasn’t just a time for thinking about the future. There was also some time for the two leaders of the club to reflect on the past season, and Savarese noted for himself that he felt content with the team he had despite not going as far in the playoffs as he may have liked.

“It was a great pleasure to work with every player that we had and will have in the future,” Savarese said. “I wouldn’t want to battle this season with anybody different than what we had on the roster; and I feel that everybody really fought hard with great mentality and the ideas were very clear for everyone that it didn’t matter who was out, somebody will come in and field that position.”

It’s a pretty positive outlook on a season that didn’t end the way they hoped. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t fight through adversity to accomplish some great things. The MLS is Back Tournament is an impressive feat that no one will probably ever replicate. They had no positive tests throughout the entirety of the 2020. And no matter what happened — injuries, wildfires, the pandemic, etc. — they still managed to put together a solid season.

But as great as those things are, it doesn’t change the fact that they had MLS Cup expectations for themselves and came up well short. Savarese noted that anything short of an MLS Cup victory leaves you wanting more, and he wants to get that next season.

“Yes, we can say so many good things and positive things the way we played ... but for us the most important thins is to make it always to the MLS Cup,” Savarese said. “And I think that’s the biggest disappointment of this year because we believe in this group tremendously to make it all the way to the cup.”

If they hit on their offseason signings like they hope they will, then it’s possible. This was a solid club that played most of the regular season without arguably their best player in Sebastian Blanco, and as of right now he’s set to return at the beginning of the year. Returning Blanco to an offensively potent lineup will be huge for the Timbers.

But for now, we’ll just have to wait and see how this team turns out. In what was a horrifically strange year for everyone, Portland had things they could be proud of. They still have work to do if they want to make the MLS Final again and be the one hoisting the trophy at the end. So for now, we’ll just spend December staring at Twitter waiting to see the team come together.