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Three questions for the start of Timbers preseason

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With preseason camp kicking off in earnest this week, here are three storylines to keep an eye on

Featuring a freshly bearded coach Gio, some familiar faces and a few newer ones, and several awkward “I’m in the middle of a drill and too focused” facial expressions, the images of 2021 preseason beginning were a sight for sore eyes for fans of the Portland Timbers. The team began training last week for their next season, and with that comes all the hopes and questions that usually define the lead-in to a new season.

It will be hard to parse out specific details, as information out of the Timbers camp will presumably be limited, but it’s still a good time to check in on what will be important to the start of the season.

As we begin Portland’s first full week of training, here are three early questions that will define the next month or so of Timbers soccer:

How much does Sebastian Blanco look like Sebastian Blanco?

Let’s get the biggest and most important one out of the way first. We don’t need too much of a reminder of how significant Blanco is to Portland. He was the leader in the Timbers’ run to the MLS is Back trophy last summer and was playing at an MVP-caliber level during the 2020 season restart. He is also coming off of a brutal ACL tear he sustained six months ago. How well he returns from that will be pivotal to how the first months of Portland’s season progress, and possibly also many months beyond that.

The question of how he looks as he returns to the field is massive. Blanco has been working like an absolute warrior to come back from his injury (which should surprise absolutely no one), so if you want to be optimistic, it seems that he is on track to return for the start of the CCL campaign and MLS season in April, as the Timbers themselves are hoping.

But Blanco will be 33 soon, and he’s recovering from the most significant injury in his career. As determined as Seba is, there is no guarantee that he will come back in the same form he was in last season, or if he can ever hit those heights again. If he isn’t ready for the start of the 2021 campaign, or isn’t back up 100% when games kick off, the first few months of the season could be rougher for the Timbers.

If he is ready and close to 100% though? Then the Timbers could be very well positioned to hit the ground running and come out of the gates blazing in April. Eyes will be on Blanco to see if he is on track to being back to his old self in preseason. And if we know anything about Seba, you don’t want to bet against him.

How well are the new fullbacks integrating into the squad?

New acquisitions for the Timbers were few and far between this offseason for the Timbers, save for their two shiny new fullbacks: Claudio Bravo and Josecarlos Van Rankin. Portland allocated much of their resources to acquire those two players, and moved on from proven players to do so. So the pressure is certainly on them to start to show if the investment is worth it.

Preseason will be the first time we get to see these new players with the current group of established vets. Van Rankin has been in Portland since early February, even getting to experience our latest annual snowstorm.

As a 27-year-old veteran of Liga MX, he has an established pedigree against a similar level of competition that should make for an easy transition to MLS. How well he does will set the tone for the new right side of the defense.

The same is true for Claudio Bravo, and perhaps even to a greater degree. The Timbers used TAM to acquire his services, which means it was not an insignificant investment to sign him. Portland is betting high that he can not only be a solid defender, but a potential game-changer on the left side of the defense and attack.

How Bravo, a younger and more electric player than Van Rankin, will integrate will have added significance to the start of Portland’s season. With, as of publishing, no other left back on the roster, more pressure is now being put on Bravo to come out strong and settle in quickly. The next month will give us our first look towards how well he is meeting that challenge.

What unexpected new faces will we see and who will be sticking around?

One of the more entertaining exercises of a new preseason is seeing all of the unexpected new faces and names that pop up. Every year, the Timbers invite a number of non-rostered trialists to join the squad, and it’s always interesting to see who is there and why.

We may see trialists who will earn a first team contract with the Timbers. The most recent example of this was Chris Duvall last season, who came in during the preseason and became a key depth piece during the 2020 season. Portland still has maybe a few needs going into the 2021 season, backup left back being prime among them. Might one of the trialists we discover with the club be the person that will fill that role?

Might we see players from the Timbers academy pop up as well and serve as harbingers of the future? The team has regularly invited academy players and draft picks to first-team preseason in the past, in particular last season when they invited some to their preseason stint in Costa Rica. That group featured newest homegrown signee, Hunter Sulte, so we may see the homegrown signees of the future in this preseason as well.

It definitely sounds like trialists of both types are with the Timbers this preseason, and some of the faces we see may wind up playing roles for the Timbers this season and beyond.

That player, by the way, was 17-year-old academy player Tega Ikoba, who was with the Timbers during preseason last year, and also made the trip to Costa Rica. That tweet also implies that Portland may be looking to the ranks of USL to shore up the rest of their roster.

It’s fun to search the internet and see who’s in town. Scouring the photo galleries from training for new and unexpected faces is one of the more lower-stakes exercises of preseason, but it can still be an important one. The players we see pop up may wind up being key depth or impact pieces by the time preseason is over, and some of them might even surprise us. (Freddy Adu career resurgence, Part Two, anyone?)