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Forest for the Trees: Takeaways from last week’s roster updates

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What last week’s news drops tell us about the early trajectory of the Timbers’ offseason.

MLS: FC Dallas at Portland Timbers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason is truly off and running, as marked by a classic Friday afternoon news dump from the Portland Timbers. The club announced the status of their roster going into the 2020-21 offseason, which came right on the heels of the end of season press conference from head coach Giovanni Savarese and GM Gavin Wilkinson.

Both of those provided a window into the state of roster as it stands currently, giving some early hints as to what the priorities for the front office will be this winter. So before the night becomes dark and full of terrors, let’s take a quick look at three big takeaways from the updates on the Portland Timbers roster:

Felipe Mora is the biggest question mark (and the biggest priority)

In both the press conference and in the roster update, the team was very clear about the contract status of Felipe Mora. The Chilean forward was brought in on loan from Pumas UNAM in Liga MX, and that loan is set to expire at the end of this year. The team is currently in negotiations with the Mexican side to keep Mora in Portland, and the result of those negotiations will shape the complexion of this offseason and upcoming regular season.

Mora’s impact this season can’t be denied. He scored eight goals and added two assists for the team this season, becoming a key piece in the attack for the Timbers. His impact became all the more important once Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Jeremy Ebobisse missed time due to injury, and his presence will be just as important in 2021 as Niezgoda looks set to miss a considerable chunk of time recovering from ACL injury.

Whether Mora returns in 2021 or not will be a key factor to Portland’s success next season. He is proven goal scorer in the league and already has good chemistry with the attackers around him. Portland would be better with him than without him, which explains why the discussions with Pumas around a deal are likely the top priority for the team at this point.

The wrinkle is that it looks like those discussions could go either way at this point. During the presser Savarese described the talks as “positive.” However, in a recently released interview with Jake Zivin, Wilkinson stated that the desire is there to keep Mora, but striking a deal to keep him will be “a tall order”.

The full interview can be seen here, with the brief discussion of Mora beginning at around the 5:50 mark:

It’s not too unfair to say that the trajectory of the offseason may depend on the negotiations around Mora. If he returns, then that’s a key piece returning for 2021 and also possibly most of Portland’s attacking acquisitions done for the winter. If he doesn’t, the team will be left scrambling to get a quality replacement to supplement Ebobisse while Niezgoda is still on the mend. Whether it would be via trade, the free agent market or another acquisition from outside the league, replacing Mora is something that the Timbers would have to pursue pretty quickly, adding further weight to the outcomes of the negotiations.

It might be stressful to have such a consequential offseason transaction be at the forefront so soon, but that is just the nature of the beast in 2020.

Early focus is on the backline

If what doomed Portland’s 2020 season could be summed up in one positional unit, it would be the defense. Yes, there are 11 players on the field and defense is truly a team effort, but the fact remains that Portland had the lowest expected goals against value out of all the Western Conference playoff teams and also the third-highest number of goals allowed in 2020 (numbers from AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com). There also was the much talked about final 15 minute malaise that plagued the backline, and their propensity to let in goals in the final moments was a recurring issue. It was one of the main factors leading to Portland’s defeat against FC Dallas in the playoffs.

Savarese, Wilkinson and company very clearly understand this problem and have subsequently made the backline one of their first focuses this winter. First, they are seeking to bring back Larrys Mabiala, one of the team’s steadiest defenders in 2020, to help keep stability. Next, much of the early moves have been focused on retooling. The team has publicly stated their desire to acquire another wide defender, which is likely the seemingly finalized deal for Claudio Nicolas Bravo.

They’ve also stated their interest in bringing in a young central defender to supplement the current stable. Allocating resources — and a $1 million transfer fee towards a young attacking fullback — is a statement of intent that Portland wants to make the backline more active in 2021.

This intent can also be seen by the reported trades of Marco Farfan and Julio Cascante. This might be reading a little too deep into the tea leaves, but the moves suggest that Portland doesn’t see either defender playing a major role in their revamped vision for the backline. Thus, they helped facilitate trades to locations the players desired, as they revealed at the press conference. Both moves create space for new acquisitions like Bravo and help net the team modest allocation money resources in return. Add in to that the departure of Chris Duvall, and it’s clear where Portland is spending their early time and energy

While it may hurt fans’ hearts to see tenured players go — especially a local product like Farfan — these moves show that the Timbers organization has a plan for getting the defense back on track, and are making moves to execute it early this offseason.

The team looks to be running it back in the midfield

Facing a year where they will be focusing on succeeding on multiple competition fronts, this is perhaps one of the most significant pieces of news in terms of depth. Portland picked up the 2021 options for Cristhian Paredes and Renzo Zambrano and the team listed other backup mids Andy Polo and Tomas Conechny as still on the team as it stands. All of those players spent time filling in at various spots in the midfield for regular starters over the past two seasons, and so far it looks like that is set to continue next season.

It’s significant because due to the number of competitions Portland is playing in next season (MLS league play, Concacaf Champions League, potentially U.S. Open Cup among others), their bench players will be essential for giving key starters a rest. And the 2020 season showed that across the board, there is a considerable drop in quality between the starters and the bench players.

FC Dallas v Portland Timbers: Round One - MLS Cup Playoffs Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Nobody on the roster can really replicate what Diego Valeri and Diego Chara do on the field, but the dip in production in the team when the likes of Paredes or Conechny are on the field instead of Dos Diegos is apparent. Backups obviously don’t need to perform at the level of a starter to be considered effective, but they are still tasked with making the overall team better and contributing. It’s an open question as to whether any of the midfielders (outside of maybe Andy Polo) did that in 2020.

As of now, none of those players appear to be departing this winter, making this season’s issues all the more pressing. The specific regression of a player like Paredes is worth a deeper look at another time, but for now one of the first nuggets we can take from the roster status update is that we can anticipate Portland will be leaning on these same players again to contribute when the starters aren’t able to go or need a rest. The answer to “Can those players turn it around and step up?” will go a long way to determining if 2021 will be a success for Portland.


So, what does the above all mean for the coming months? At the moment, all it does is give us a glimpse into what the team is prioritizing first, and what some of the earliest official news may be. Indeed, the Farfan and Cascante moves will likely be announced next week when the MLS half-day trade window opens on December 13th, and Bravo’s announcement looks to be happening sooner rather than later.

The offseason is a long affair, and Portland has historically gotten their work done for the most part quickly and quietly. Priorities shift rapidly during the offseason, so the above might not even be the biggest news of the offseason. In fact, it probably won’t be! But for now, all we know is that this winter will be a busy one for the Timbers organization, and winter is coming.