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Strengthening the Weak Links: Are the Timbers upgrading their biggest areas of need?

With the offseason in full swing, are the Portland Timbers focusing on their biggest areas of need with their player movement?

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Portland Timbers v Los Angeles FC Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images

A soccer team can be thought of as eleven links in a chain. For a team to be successful, every link needs to be stable. Every player on the field needs to be confidently relied upon to do their job. If one player fails, the rest of the team has to shift and cover for them, subsequently not being able to do their job to the best of their ability. In other words, if one link in the chain breaks, the whole team can fall apart. In soccer, you are only as strong as your weakest link.

This “weak link” way of thinking can first be attributed to the book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by Chris Anderson and David Sally (I first heard about it personally through a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell — I recommend both the book and the podcast series). They authors utilize statistical analysis to broadly conclude that if soccer teams upgraded their lowest performing players, rather than those that are their highest performers, they would wind up winning more games. Rather than redundantly make the strong links stronger, when given the opportunity teams should focus on making the weak links more secure.

Well the Portland Timbers have that opportunity, and are now in the middle of analyzing the links in their chain and actively working on upgrading their roster in the January transfer window. Are they focusing their energies in the strongest areas of need? In the spirit of Anderson and Sally, let’s take a look at where they are looking to upgrade, and if they are strengthening the links they should be.

Any discussion of the weak links from Portland’s 2020 season has to start with the frailties of the defense, specifically their abysmal record allowing goals in the final part of games. As we all unfortunately know, in the final 15 minutes of games in 2020 Portland allowed a grand total of 15 goals — the worst mark for that time period in the entire league. Many of those cost them points, and the highest profile of all of them wound up getting them booted from the playoffs before they really even got going.

Undoubtedly, this is one of the biggest weak links in Portland’s roster. And while it may have been a combined issue of personnel and mentality that lead to the errors, you can only address one of those things in a transfer window. Portland’s decision makers have already recognized this as a concern, and have been moving to address it. The move of signing Claudio Bravo at left back represents an intent to upgrade the backline, as do the trades of Julio Cascante and Marco Farfan made earlier in December.

When you factor in the additional rumored departure of Jorge Villafana, as well as Gavin Wilkinson’s stated intent of looking to bring in another younger central defender, it is pretty clear the Portland is looking to enhance their defense in all areas, recognizing that the unit simply was not good enough in 2020.

The departures, expected depth additions, and announced acquisitions thus far have shown that Portland is addressing one of its weakest links in the chain and areas of need that arose from last season. But news of more player signings have been sparse at other positions thus far, save for one.

MLS: Portland Timbers at LA Galaxy
Mora, realizing that he’s going to be getting even more log slices next year to finish building his coffee table.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

News arose late last week that Portland is close to bringing back Felipe Mora on a permanent deal. While this news may not be surprising based on recent reporting (it was indeed something that, *ahem*, someone called a couple weeks ago), it does represent an important development. Portland will presumably have its top choice for starter and backup at forward going into the 2021 season. This in turn most likely wraps up the business Portland will be doing as it relates to the forward spot this offseason.

On its face, forward was decidedly not a weak link in 2020. But without reacquiring Mora, it could very well have turned into one in 2021. If just Jeremy Ebobisse was the sole striker on the depth chart as Jaroslaw Niezgoda recovers from an ACL injury, Portland was just one injury or condensed game schedule away from relying upon an unfamiliar backup to lead the line next season (or, let’s be honest, someone like Dairon Asprilla). Mora’s return means that Portland is still upgrading in an position of need, and ensuring that players down the roster are still high performers.

The defense is decidedly a weak link, and the forward spot could have very well wound up becoming one, so allocating resources towards them seems to be the right move. But what about other areas of the field? There has been little to no reporting around changes at other positions, most notably, the depth in the midfield.

To be explicit, the drop off from starter to backup in the middle of the park was significant for Portland last year. Cristhian Paredes underperformed in 2020 compared to his steady rise during the 2019 campaign. A microcosm of that can be seen when he came on for Eryk Williamson due to injury in Portland’s playoff defeat. Once he did. the Timbers’ ability to link up play in the midfield greatly diminished. It was one factor that lead to Portland registering just eight shots on target in that game.

The above sentiment also applies to backup defensive midfielder Renzo Zambrano, who logged just 100 minutes of game time in 2020 (compared to just under 800 minutes in 2019), and backup central midfielder Tomas Conechny, who has wholly underwhelmed in his three seasons as Portland. These players aren’t the most pressing concerns and aren’t not the most obvious weak links on the roster, but they very well could be if things go south farther up the depth chart.

Similar to the hypothetical conundrum Portland could have faced at forward, they are facing a more plausible one in the midfield. Diego Valeri and Diego Chara, two of the strongest links for Portland, are both set to turn 35 in the 2021 season. Chara is ageless and Valeri has looked rejuvenated, but Father Time is still undefeated. If either or — God forbid — both of them go down due to injury, the performance of the backups does not inspire confidence. Unless we see something to improve our faith in those players, any of the backup options in the midfield would decidedly become one of the weaker links on the field.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Los Angeles FC
Part of me wants Valeri to continue playing until he’s 50, part of me wants him wrapped in bubble wrap so he can never be hurt again.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It is an open question whether the Timbers’ decision makers recognize the gravity of this problem and are forecasting potential solutions. Early signs point towards Portland relying on the same stable of midfielders next season, betting on their in-house options improving in 2021. If they bet wrong and those options continue to underwhelm, it could be decision that costs the team games, as it leaves more weak links prone to breaking.

Time will of course tell where Portland’s priorities were this offseason — and if they were set correctly. More player movement is expected to be happening in the coming weeks, and so we will have evidence that points to where the front office believes the weakest links in the team currently are. And we will have to wait a few additional months (or more, depending on CBA negotiations) to finally see results on the field.

But at this point, you could make the argument that Portland is tackling the whole of its offseason work wisely. Refreshing the defense is targeting a clear need, as is keeping things (mostly) settled at striker. The only potential problem on the horizon is seeing how the issues with the midfield depth will be addressed, if they are at all. The offseason is just revving into gear, so who knows if that problem will be addressed and what additional twists the narrative may hold.

Regardless of what the rest the offseason will bring, we’ll still be here thinking about the weak links in the Timbers squad. The question on everyone’s mind will be if the work that is done this winter will be enough to make the links on the field for the Portland Timbers strong for 2021.