After what has been one of the longest offseasons in MLS history, soccer is back. Well, not exactly, but the preseason started yesterday for the four teams that will play in the 2021 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League Tournament this season. One of those teams happens to be your Portland Timbers, and they’re already both excited about the ceiling of their squad and weary of the pitfalls of complacency.
“I see no limits,” Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse said early in his media availability. “There were a lot of good moments last year, and we all have to be ambitious and not rest on the successes that you might have found on the field at a given moment and know it can be taken away the second you get a little complacent.”
Last year was a solid year for the Timbers. Despite dealing with key injuries — most notably Sebastian Blanco’s ACL tear last September — they managed to finish third in the Western Conference and put together one of the most potent attacks in the league. This all happened after they won the first (and hopefully only) ever MLS is Back Tournament to earn a spot in the CCL for the first time in four years.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a season filled with its disappointments. Obviously, you have the Blanco injury and, later, Jaroslaw Niezgoda’s ACL injury as clear negatives from 2020. Add on to that the heartbreaking loss to FC Dallas in the first round of the MLS playoffs, one that should’ve been a victory if not for yet another late-game goal being conceded in the final minutes. Giving up late goals falls right under that umbrella of complacency that Ebobisse touched on, and the Timbers know they have to be better about this season.
“That’s something that we have to make sure this year doesn’t happen again,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “Because that conditions us. Even games like Dallas, for example, which we completely dominated, but at the end we gave them position and possibility to be able to get back into the game.”
Those late-game concessions have to change, but that doesn’t change the fact that there were real positives from last season. Take the offense, for example, which finished second in goals scored behind only LAFC, a team that took 99 more shots than Portland. Most of that happened without the help of Blanco, who was the MLS is Back Player of the Tournament and was playing well before his injury. Savarese said that he’s been impressed with Blanco’s progress, but that caution will be key in his recovery.
“He’s doing so well,” Savarese said. “He’s pushing himself daily to make sure that he can come back as soon as possible. But also, we need to be careful and mindful that he hasn’t played in a long time and we have to be cautious the way we’re going to bring him back, but he’s getting closer and closer.”
Savarese noted earlier this month that he hopes Blanco will be back for the Timbers first match of 2021 against CD Marathon on April 6. Assuming he’s healthy and ready to play, that would be huge for this Timbers squad, which is one that has big aspirations, including making a run in the CCL. But they know they can’t win it all at once — they have to take it one step at a time.
“We have the desire to be the first team that can make it all the way,” Savarese said. “There’s been a few teams that have tried, so we have that desire to do that. But we have to initiate with the first match, which is going to be very difficult.”
Bringing back Blanco would surely elevate the team to a new level, but that’s the only thing Savarese and crew have to handle. The backline has been almost entirely reworked, with Jorge Villafana and Marco Farfan off to the Los Angeles teams, and Claudio Bravo and Josecarlos Van Rankin replacing them. Savarese is excited about the fit, saying that both players add another dimension to the club, while fitting in nicely with what Portland has built.
But even with the excitement surrounding Blanco and the new arrivals, Ebobisse admitted that there was a sense of anxiety surrounding the start of the year. He said the long offseason reminded him a bit of college, with the season ending and the long layoff in between. Despite the offseason, however, and the fact that the Timbers are about to start yet another season in the midst of a pandemic, their on-the-field chemistry stays strong.
“I think there’s some connections that are forming,” Ebobisse said. “There’s gonna be some exciting stuff coming from us on the field.”