MLS soccer is finally here! The Portland Timbers may have already played some Concacaf Champions League matches these past two weeks, but they’ll officially restart MLS play this Sunday against the Vancouver Whitecaps this Sunday at 7 p.m. in Sandy, Utah. Here’s what you need to know about the Timbers this season.
Portland Timbers (11-6-6, third in the Western Conference, lost in PKs in first round against FC Dallas)
Head Coach: Giovanni Savarese
Key Additions: Claudio Bravo, Josecarlos Van Rankin, Ismael “Ish” Jomes
Key Losses: Jorge Villafana, Marco Farfan, Chris Duvall, Julio Cascante, Tomas Conechny
Projected Starting XI:
(Note: This is what I consider to be the best XI that the Timbers can throw out there and also what I think they will/should do. However, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Savarese decides to start Felipe Mora at striker or put Jeremy Ebobisse on the wing (a position he’s played a lot of). It will be one of the more fascinating things to monitor once the team is at full strength.)
Best Offseason Move
There are a couple to choose from here, but I’m going with the signing of Claudio Bravo. He’s an attacking outside back — which Savarese usually loves — who can play with pace and recover quickly on defense. He should fit seamlessly into what Savarese and company want to do with the offense and projects to be a solid defender. For a team in desperate need of a starting quality fullback, this was a great move by the Timbers, and we’ve already seen what he and Josecarlos Van Rankin can do in just the CCL matches. I’m excited to see what he can do once fully acclimated.
Reason to be Worried
Even after extolling the merits of signing Bravo and Van Rankin, there are worries about the defense. Hopefully Bravo and Van Rankin do well. Pablo Bonilla was intriguing on the outside and Dario Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala should still be solid at center back, but the club still hasn’t added that young center back that president of soccer and GM Gavin Wilkinson said they were looking for this offseason. And as the first game against CD Marathon showed, this team is still capable of losing focus in critical moments.
The reason this is critical is because that lack of focus is what killed Portland last season, specifically towards the end of games. No team gave up more goals in the final 15 minutes than the Timbers, and that tendency cost them a chance to make some noise in the playoffs with that first-round loss to FC Dallas. There’s reason to believe in the new additions helping the defense, but will that solve the parade of conceded goals that plagued Portland late in games? We’ll find out soon.
Why the Timbers are Worth Watching
There are plenty of reasons for this, but let’s start with arguably the most important: Sebastian Blanco is back, or at least will be back soon. The best player on the Timbers was absent for the majority of the 2020 regular season, and Portland were still good enough to finish in the top three of the Western Conference. They had one of the best offenses in MLS last regular season without Seba. With Seba, they earned a Concacaf Champions League appearance thanks to Portland’s victory in the MLS is Back Tournament last August, a tournament he was the MVP of. The prospect of a Timbers squad with Blanco back is exciting in and of itself.
And there are other storylines, too. What’s going on at the No. 9 spot? Jeremy Ebobisse is a talented young player, but are the Timbers going to wind up starting Felipe Mora instead? Will Father Time catch up to Diego Valeri and Diego Chara or will they continue to be two of the best in MLS history at their respective positions? Will the defense continue to give up goals in the final 15 minutes? All these questions need answering, and the best way to do so is to watch the Timbers.