Maybe you didn’t pay close attention to the Portland Timbers’ 2022 preseason games. Maybe it was because you couldn’t watch, or didn’t watch, or had better things to do than devote time to glorified scrimmages (like I did — please send help).
So if you didn’t watch, or even if you did and want some main points to pull from the games, here’s an attempt at presenting some big takeaways from the past two months that you should care about. For the next few months at least, preseason provided some overarching talking points.
Zac McGraw looks ready to step up
When the unfortunate news broke in January that preferred center back tandem Dario Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala had both undergone sports hernia surgeries, eyes suddenly turned down the depth chart. Bill Tuiloma, an established contributor and depth piece, has had significant MLS experience and was more of a known quantity. Zac McGraw, the next most experienced central defender on the roster, wasn’t as well known. And in his chance to show that he’s ready to step into at least a temporary starting role, McGraw has looked the part.
In his preseason appearances, the 24 year-old looked composed and confident. The nature of the opposition didn’t appear to be too much for him and he looked solid when challenging for balls. There were multiple times in the preseason finale against Real Salt Lake that McGraw set himself up well positionally to intercept a ball or challenge a ball carrier. He also looked strong in shouldering attackers off the ball. McGraw stayed connected to the back line and covered well for Tuiloma when called upon.
Jumping from the likes of Bobby Wood to the likes of Adam Buksa, Gustavo Bou, or even potentially Jozy Altidore in the opener is a significant step, but if the past few performances suggest anything, it’s that McGraw is ready for the challenge.
Aljaz Ivacic gets the first go in goal
A big storyline this offseason was Portland breaking in a new starting goalkeeper. In the battle between Aljaz Ivacic and David Bingham, Ivacic got the start in both of Portland’s preseason scrimmages in Tucson. The suspicion that he was being eyed as the starter started to form.
That suspicion was confirmed once the Timbers returned to Portland. When as close to a preferred first choice lineup could be mustered, it was Ivacic who started in goal for the match. One could very strongly infer that this was to help build chemistry and familiarity, particularly with the back line.
The competition is by no means finished, and we will almost certainly see Bingham put on the gloves before the season is done. But for now, the coaching staff has pegged Ivacic as the man they want up first between the sticks. He will give his best effort to fill the shoes of Steve Clark.
Yimmi Chara and Santiago Moreno: the playmakers
With Diego Valeri now officially gone to Lanus and Sebastian Blanco still presumably working his way back to full fitness, the Timbers are unable to turn to their preferred playmakers as the season gets underway. There is a void for who will be expected to make things happen in the Timbers attack at the beginning of the season. Enter, the Colombian duo Yimmi Chara and Santiago Moreno.
The preseason games suggest that both players will be asked to provide a good chunk of the chance creation for Portland’s attack. The final preseason game gave us some clues as to how they will handle the role in the coming weeks.
Y. Chara, being deployed in a free-attacker role behind and around the starting forward, has been given license to go find the game and utilize his quick passing and positioning to spring attackers, and provide the final pass. Moreno, playing on the right wing (and occasionally left), showed his tendency to try to make things happen with the ball at his feet, regularly driving at defenders. His final pass must still improve, but you can see that the U-22 Initiative player’s instincts are promising.
Both of these elements were on display in the build-up to Portland’s first goal last Saturday. Moreno collected the ball and shook his defender, causing two additional defenders to step to him in the process. By drawing those additional red jerseys toward him, he created more space for Yimmi Chara to run into. Moreno found him with a pass, Y. Chara lofted a cross, and Cristhian Paredes roofed a shot and stared down the disheveled RSL defense.
Look for both Colombians to be the straw that stirs the Timbers' attack during these first few games of the season.
Justin Rasmussen earned a shot with the first team
You have to go back to the before times of 2017 to find the last time the Timbers signed one of their SuperDraft picks to the first team (that player was Jeremy Ebobisse, by the way). This year, they’ve done it again for the first time in five years. The Timbers signed first-round SuperDraft pick Justin Rasmussen was signed to a one-year deal.
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the left back did this in the preseason:
Rasmussen’s expectations should be limited primarily to a backup role to presumptive starter Claudio Bravo. But as of this publishing, Rasmussen is currently the only other natural left back on the roster behind Bravo. Assuming Portland doesn’t sign another left back (which they still could), Rasmussen could have his chance to earn minutes as lineups are rotated early in the season. And if his contract and goal are any indications, he’s earned the chance to do so.
Portland is thin at forward; get ready to get weird
The unfortunate news broke last week that starting forward Felipe Mora has undergone surgery on his knee. It does not appear to be anything serious, but Portland’s leading scorer last season is set for at least six weeks on the mend.
That leaves Designated Player Jaroslaw Niezgoda as the man to start up top for the first month or so of the season. Beyond Jaro however, things look dicey.
It was revealed by Giovanni Savarese in his postgame comments after Portland’s final preseason game that newly signed Homegrown forward Tega Ikoba has not been able to practice or play due to a medical condition. “Tega [Ikoba] is not available, for a condition the doctors are looking into and hopefully is going to be fixed soon,” Savarese shared. “But at the moment, he’s not available to be able to train or play.”
So where does that leave the Timbers? It’s forcing them to have to be creative in the short term and that means putting some players in a position that’s not necessarily their preferred role. Savarese specifically identified the role of a false-nine style forward as one of the directions they are looking
So if Niezgoda needs a sub, or Portland needs more attacking firepower to chase a goal, be prepared to see the likes of Dairon Asprilla, Blake Bodily, or maybe even Yimmi Chara step in up top and play as more of a false nine, facilitator type of forward.
It’s not an ideal position for the Timbers to be in, but at the very least it’s a position they’ve had some time to prepare for, and hopefully, they’ve developed a plan.