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State of the Timbers: Here we go

What are Portland’s expectations for 2021? What should their goals be for the first part of the season? Here’s the state of the Timbers as we embark once more unto the breach.

MLS: Concacaf Champions League-Marathon at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

And here. We. Go. The 2021 season is well and truly off for the Portland Timbers. They passed their first test of the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 with flying colors — a result in Honduras and a 5-0 domination in their first game at home. You pretty much could not have asked for a better start to the 2021 campaign.

But after the start comes the first lap. Portland is staring down a gauntlet of a 2021 season, with a packed schedule and multiple competitions to juggle. Even with so much on their plates, the Timbers still have high expectations for the 2021 season.

Where are those expectations, and should they be where they are? How does the first quarter(ish) of this season factor into those season-long expectations, and how should we assess the coming months? Here’s the state of the Timbers as they embark into a new season:

The Big Goal: Win Silverware

Let’s not mince words — Portland are in this season to win trophies. The acquisitions made over the offseason were done primarily to enhance what was already present on the team, and it reflects a belief by the front office that Portland have enough to win championships in 2021.

Giovanni Savarese, Gavin Wilkinson, and anyone associated with the product on the field has made it clear that they believe that this team should be contending for trophies, and it’s easy to see why. Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and Sebastian Blanco are all in the top tier of MLS players at their respective positions, and clear top end talent is one of the biggest keys to winning silverware in MLS. Portland have, at the very worst, replacement level depth at pretty much every position. It makes sense that Portland should be setting their expectations high.

And frankly, that’s where their expectations should be for this year. Portland’s roster turnover has been very minimal this offseason. Outside of adding Josecarlos Van Rankin and Claudio Bravo, this Timbers team is pretty much the same from last year. And that team is, uh, getting up there in age.

That screenshot was created by Steve Funn (@StatHunting on Twitter), and is a visualization of the average ages of MLS rosters. As you can see, Portland has the second oldest average age in MLS this season. Their three most important contributors are 33 or older. They are not winning any “Play Your Kids” awards this season.

And therefore, it can be concluded that the Timbers are very much in “win now” mode, which aligns with the stated goals of the front office, players, and coaching staff. Those goals are not that far off from reality. Last year this roster was one saved penalty away from advancing to the Western Conference semifinals and would have faced a Seattle team in the next round which they matched up very favorably against. This team had the talent and pedigree to be in it at the final round of last season’s playoffs. They should have similar aspirations for the 2021 campaign.

It seems daunting, but it’s honestly where they should be. Based off of aspirations and roster construction, this team’s goal should be gunning for trophies in 2021, whether that’s the Supporter’s Shield, or MLS Cup, or CCL, or the US Open Cup (if it happens and if the Timbers qualify).

And how they get to those trophies depends on how well they achieve...

The Short Term Goal: Keep the pace (in order to stay healthy)

The wheels may start to come off this entire thing if Portland loses touch with the Western Conference in MLS play, which does not necessarily play to the Timbers’ early season strengths. Portland has had abysmal starts to the season. 2020 for example was kicked off with a dispiriting opening day loss and then a skin-of-their-teeth win against Nashville SC. That pattern was true in 2019 and in 2018. This April’s early success notwithstanding, the point still stands that Portland has historically not had the most successful beginning to MLS campaigns.

And therein should inform Portland’s goal for this first stretch of MLS games — don’t fall flat on your face. If they do, much of the other Western Conference teams will get out to a faster start to Portland, and they will be playing catchup for most of the Spring.

While that in itself isn’t a death sentence (Portland survived rough early stretches in both 2018 and 2019 and made the playoffs), it does put more pressure on Portland come the summer. With every dropped result, the next game becomes just a bit more consequential, and those can add up. Staying in the hunt in the early weeks means Portland can dictate their own pace in the standings and keep things in front of them.

I’m not saying the Timbers need to dominate the league in their first few games. The champions of April & May are rarely the champions of November & December. But it would do Portland a world of good to keep pace and not have that pressure on them.

That would allow them to rotate their aforementioned older players, giving them games where they’re able to rest and recover. And that in turn would help keep those players healthy, and in particular help transition the recovering Sebastian Blanco to integrate back into the lineup at an easy pace.

That, along with the necessity to keep pace with the pack, is worth noting because of the big white whale that Portland is chasing. I’m talking about...

The Looming Specter: Concacaf Champions League & Estadio Azteca

The elephant in the room is the other competition that the Timbers are currently juggling at the moment. Their comprehensive 7-2 aggregate victory over CD Marathon in the Concacaf Champions League served as an announcement that Portland is a contender in the continental tournament and validation that they have the roster to compete.

And what does Portland get for their efforts? Two dates in the quarterfinals against Club America — Liga MX giants and probably the biggest team in all of North America. America is currently on a scintillating run of form, having lost just twice in their last 14 matches. They haven’t lost at home in league play since November of last year.

Despite dropping a home result against CD Olimpia in their CCL Round of 16 matchup, the Mexican giants are undoubtedly a tough out and decidedly are the favorites in the quarterfinal tie (especially when considering they are hosting the pivotal second leg.)

And so there lies the conundrum for the Timbers. They have proven that they have the roster to compete at a champions league level and have stated aspirations of winning the tournament. But they are facing probably the best team in the entire region, therefore giving them a steep mountain they would need to climb while also balancing league play.

Portland will obviously go into the tie against America with the intention of winning. But how they manage and perform in those games will say a lot towards how they manage the rest of their short term priorities in MLS. Do they jeopardize an MLS result — say, by fielding a rotated squad in the May 1 game away at FC Dallas — in order to prioritize a CCL game? Or do they try to have their cake and eat it too, potentially jeopardizing standing in both competitions? These are important questions the Timbers will have to answer if they want to achieve success in the early part of this season.

Now, if they (knock on all the wood) somehow get past America? Then the CCL becomes a much more realistically attainable trophy. The winner of the Timbers-America matchup is assured to face an MLS team based on the bracket, and America looked plausibly beatable based on their performance against Olimpia. If things break right, the Timbers have a decent shot to advance all the way to the CCL final (again — knock on all the wood).

If Portland proves they have the mettle to go up against Concacaf’s best and survive, then the dream of becoming the first MLS club to hoist the CCL trophy is well and truly in sight. And if they can do so while also setting themselves up well for the summer in league play, then they have proven that they are a team that can be expected to be in the thick of things come trophy season in MLS.

If neither hold true? Then we’re in for another tumultuous and disheartening start of the season, left to hope once again that the Timbers somehow figure it all out in the end. But we’ve been there before, and we’ve been alright. And If this first lap of 2021 does go well, then the Timbers will be squarely set up to deliver on the promise of what they have built, and add more hardware to the trophy case. Only time will tell us what this year has in store.

It’s spring, and hope springs eternal. Once more into the breach we go.