Rejoice, Rose City faithful, as this weekend we finally get to see the Portland Timbers play soccer for the first time in 2020.
The final leg of the Timbers’ preseason preparations begins on Sunday as Portland takes on the Vancouver Whitecaps at Providence Park. The team has spent the past two weeks training in Costa Rica, where they defeated three Costa Rican sides in closed door friendlies. Now, they’re back in Portland, and after having some tantalizing but brief goal highlights from the games posted on social media, Timbers fans will finally have the chance to watch their team play live.
The preseason tournament usually presents itself as the first true taste of how the newly configured team will look going into a new season, and can be an intriguing indicator of how the early part of the season could play out. And the 2020 edition of the tournament is definitely no exception. Here’s three storylines to keep an eye on as the preseason tournament gets rolling:
The Striker Situation
Which of the triumvirate of Timbers forwards will be the starting center forward is perhaps the biggest question going into the 2020 season. New Designated Player Jaroslaw Niezgoda is coming off of an impressive season in Poland, where he bagged 14 goals in 18 games. He missed out on most of the time the team was in Costa Rica due to a heart ablation procedure he underwent prior to his signing, so he didn’t feature in any of the three preseason games so far. Since the team most likely didn’t sign a DP just so he could sit on the bench, Niezgoda will get his shot to lock down the starting center forward spot. The preseason tournament will most likely be our first chance to see him in action, and see what he can bring to the attack. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t start. In fact, he probably won’t start.
Niezgoda’s arrival greatly impacts the Timbers attack, but it also impacts the current Timbers forwards. Namely, Jeremy Ebobisse. Entering his fourth season with the Timbers, the 23 year old is coming off a career year in 2019. He co-led the team in goals with 11, but despite his production, the team brought in Niezgoda as a DP. Ebobisse may still find playing time—he played the majority of 2019 shunted out wide as a winger, and Giovanni Savarese has stated the team will be utilizing two-forward formations. But whether he is a starter going into 2020 is entirely unknown.
The wildcard is new addition Felipe Mora. Signed this offseason as a loan move from Liga MX side Pumas using TAM, Mora has been the starter in each of Portland’s three preseason games thus far. He netted two goals over the course of the three games, and as of this moment has the most time playing with the first choice attackers. A different style of forward from both Ebobisse and Niezgoda, he could prove to be a valuable depth piece, and will undoubtedly get playing time over the course of the preseason tournament.
We may not get our full answer in the preseason tournament, as Ebobisse is coming back from surgery after a meniscus tear. Whichever number can go, it will be very interesting to see which of the forwards starts each game, and who gets playing time with the likes of Diego Valeri or Sebastian Blanco in the attack. The next three games could go a ways to telling us who Savarese has identified as his man to lead the line early in the season.
“Who will be the starting goalkeeper for the Timbers?” is low-key one of the most interesting 2020 storylines. Portland has two starting quality ‘keepers in Steve Clark and Jeff Attinella, who each turned in career-years the past two seasons—Attinella in 2018 and Clark in 2019. The battle to see which of the two will be the Timbers #1 is undoubtedly a hot topic of conversation heading into the season, and it may kick off in earnest this weekend.
Clark looks to have the inside track to the job, as he has been the starter in each of Portland’s friendlies in Costa Rica. Attinella didn’t feature in Costa Rica, as he has been slowly working his way back to full fitness after a shoulder injury suffered in 2019. In his stead, Aljaz Ivacic, the 26 year old Slovenian who was signed last offseason but missed most of 2019 due to injury, has been the first goalkeeper off the bench in every game.
Clark and Ivacic will likely both continue to get playing time in the preseason tournament, and the chances are high that Attinella will finally make his return to the field, provided he is fully fit. As of now, Clark looks to have the inside track to the starting job, but Attinella will be eager to prove he is capable of re-discovering his 2018 form. Ivacic will also be looking to show he is worth making the lineup as a backup keeper week in and week out as well, possibly competing with the “loser” of the starting keeper job. Seeing which keeper starts with which unit, and how they perform against MLS level competition, will be the first real indication of who will end up between the sticks in 2020.
Same Spaces, New Faces
Each new offseason brings a host of new faces to the team, and the preseason tournament will be the first chance to see all of them in action. Perhaps Portland’s highest profile signing this offseason has been the new DP (and Chará) in town, Yimmi Chará. In addition to the aforementioned Mora and Niezgoda, Chará will be relied upon to revamp Portland’s attack. Is he finally the dynamic winger and extra attacking option that Portland has been searching for since 2015? We may get a hint to the answer over the course of the next week.
Another question we might have answered for us is whether or not Dario Zuparic can be the center back the Timbers have been waiting for. I don’t need to rehash the challenges the backline faced last season (short version: all the center backs got hurt), and how that impacted Portland’s late-season woes. Last season highlighted how desperately Portland needs solid central defender depth, and it’s all the more important now that Bill Tuiloma is on the shelf for the next two months with a calf injury. Zuparic was brought in on a TAM deal to be that solid depth, and he’s been starting next to Larrys Mabiala so far in preseason. We’ll see over the next few games if that trend continues, and if Zuparic indeed looks the part of a reliable starter. Have a look below and decide for yourself!
What about other faces we haven’t seen, or haven’t seen in a while? Blake Bodily was just signed to a homegrown deal after a stellar college season, and he may have a chance in the preseason tournament to show what he can do at a higher level. MLS veteran Chris Duvall has been training as a trialist, and could provide valuable right back depth if he earns a spot, so maybe we’ll get a chance to see what he can bring during the tournament. Will Marco Farfan, who barely saw time with the first team last season, prove he can be the reliable understudy to Jorge Villafana, and also perhaps one day step up to supplant him?
There are of course many other things to watch for and consider over the next week ( for example: how does the central midfield look?), but the above are the prevailing themes of the preseason so far, and we may get an idea of how they play out very soon. The preseason tournament is just the first taste of the Timbers in 2020, and hopefully it’s something to savor, but most importantly, just enjoy watching some soccer!