The Portland Timbers came oh so tantalizingly close to raising MLS Cup at home last year. But as we all saw, the dream wasn’t meant to be as they tragically fell in penalty kicks. It was an emotional end, followed by an emotional farewell bid to club legend Diego Valeri.
Despite the heartbreak, the Timbers have decided to run it back once again, keeping their core together for another run at a championship. The lack of turnover, and the strengths of the roster reveal that the outlook for this team is still the same: contending for hardware and winning trophies.
Portland Timbers (17-13-4, finished 4th in the Western Conference, MLS Cup Finalist)
Head coach: Giovanni Savarese (5th season in charge)
Key additions (just a list the players): David Ayala, David Bingham, Tega Ikoba
Key losses (just a list of players): Diego Valeri, Steve Clark
Projected Best XI:
(4-2-3-1): Aljaz Ivacic; Claudio Bravo, Larrys Mabiala, Dairo Zuparic, Josecarlos Van Rankin; Diego Chara, Eryk Williamson; Dairon Asprilla, Sebastian Blanco, Yimmi Chara; Felipe Mora
Best XI is tricky, because Portland still have some key players working their way back from injury and into full fitness. But for my money, this is probably what Portland will want to roll out when everyone is 100%.
Best offseason move: Re-signing Sebastian Blanco is a pretty significant move. His influence on the offensive side of the ball can’t really be overstated. He’s one of Portland’s best 2-3 players, and his return keeps the ceiling for this group high. After a winter where it looked like he might have been out the door, retaining him also helps calm some nerves around the Rose City.
Honorable mention to the signing of David Ayala. He’s a highly rated prospect in defensive midfield, and has all the makings of the heir to Diego Chara in the midfield.
Best reason to pay attention:
Outside of goalkeeper, this is essentially the same team that made the MLS Cup Final last season. While the succession at keeper is a significant question mark, the personnel in front of the net has chemistry and familiarity — and a bitter taste in their mouths after the heartbreak of coming so close to winning MLS Cup last year. There is a real chance that Giovanni Savarese and the players use that as motivation to come out of the gates flying and make 2022 the year that the Timbers finally have a strong start to a regular season.
In Santiago Moreno, the Timbers have an electric young talent and candidate for one of the breakout players of the season. In Diego Chara, they have an ageless wonder who still hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. And in Sebastian Blanco, they have a player that when healthy is a game-breaking level of attacking talent. If everyone stays healthy, the players that are expected to step up actually step up, and Portland shows the same resilience and fight they did in the latter part of last season, then the Timbers will likely be right in the thick of the fight for hardware once again this season.
The one glaring weakness : The biggest weakness for this team is probably goalkeeper and the defense. Steve Clark’s departure is one that is sure to be felt. While not spectacular, in 2021 Clark was one of the best shot stoppers in the league. He recorded a 78% save percentage last year, and based upon how often the Timbers lost the expected goals battle in games and yet still won games, Clark’s saves were a real difference maker for Portland’s defense.
Aljaz Ivacic, the next man up, has shown flashes of the same propensity for sterling saves over the past few years. But regardless of his skill level he will still have to mesh with a defense, and a backline will have to become comfortable to a new voice behind them. And that puts a lot of pressure on a defense that only tightened up and figured out how to defend well in the final few months of the season. Compounding that, preferred starting centerback pairing Larrys Mabiala and Dairo Zuparic are out for the first few weeks of the season and things become a bit more concerning.
Goalkeeper, and by extension the defensive unit, goes from “feels decent” to “big question mark”, and that makes it feel like the biggest area of shakiness going into the new year.
One fact you can use to impress your friends: The Portland Timbers hold the record for both earliest and latest regular time goals in MLS Cup history. Diego Valeri scored :27 into MLS Cup 2015, and Felipe Mora scored at 93:54 in MLS Cup 2021.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe character who most personifies this team: It’s not perfect, but Thor- specifically from Avengers: Endgame. The Timbers nearly successfully completed their mission last year, but fell just short. After that, they haven’t done… much, and from the outside do not appear to be at the same level they were at. But deep down, they’re still a formidable team that has greatness inside them. They are fully capable of getting to the same spot they were at last year… if they can hold themselves together.