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Previewing the Timbers’ 2023 MLS Season

After a disappointing 2022 season, how will a relatively unchanged Timbers squad bounce back in 2023?

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

We are officially a few days out from the Portland Timbers’ 2023 MLS season opener, and I think I speak for every Timbers fan when I say that 2022, for a multitude of reasons, sucked. After reaching MLS Cup Final in 2021 the club failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2016 season, winning just 11 out of 34 matches on their way to finishing 8th in the Western Conference.

Having said that, I am cautiously optimistic (maybe foolishly so) that the Timbers can put 2022 behind them and make their way back to the playoffs in 2023.

Recapping the 2022 MLS Season

An oft-injured forward corps showed promising flashes at different times over the course of the year, but regularly looked disjointed and wasteful in front of goal. You don’t have to look much further than the production from the Timbers’ three designated players (Jaroslaw Niezgoda, Sebastian Blanco, and Yimmi Chara) to tell you that. The trio combined for 20 goals and 19 assists in 2022, with top-earner Yimmi Chara providing just four goals and nine assists despite playing a part in all 34 of the team’s matches.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Timbers’ backline also had their fair share of issues in 2022, conceding the fifth-most number of goals in the Western Conference (53 GA) while keeping the fourth-fewest number of clean sheets throughout the entire league (6 CS). Long story short: If your goal difference is anywhere near 0, which is exactly where the Timbers were, you probably aren’t making much noise at the business-end of the season.

It’s never as straightforward as saying “X is the reason” a team didn’t achieve their goals in any given season, but in my opinion, the two biggest factors that led to the Timbers underperforming in 2022 were a) injuries, and b) key starters regressing.

A whole host of first-team players were marred by injuries ranging in severity last season, most notably Felipe Mora, the Timbers’ top goal-scorer in 2021, who made just seven appearances because of a knee injury that will most likely keep him out of action until May 2023 at the earliest. Eryk Williamson made his return to the pitch against Orlando City SC on March 27, 2022 after tearing his ACL in Seattle in August 2021, but started just 13 of his 22 appearances as he worked to regain fitness and form. And despite appearing in 32 of the Timbers 34 matches in 2022, Giovanni Savarese has made it clear on several occasions this offseason that Sebastian Blanco struggled to stay available for selection and pain-free. Having said that, Seba was still Seba, and he pitched in seven goals and eight assists in just 1,829 minutes of play.

The knock-on effect of those injuries meant that the Timbers had to rely more heavily on the players that were available in those positions. Mora’s injury meant that for the majority of the season Jaroslaw Niezgoda was the only healthy number 9 on the roster who entered the year with MLS experience, which forced a combination of Dairon Asprilla and Nathan Fogaca to play spot minutes up top at various points. Niezgoda did score nine goals and provide two assists last season, but as the fourth-highest earner on the team, one would expect a higher return than one goal every 2.44 matches. The same can be said for Yimmi Chara, who had two fewer goals in 2022 than he registered in 2021, despite playing 447 more minutes. I’m not trying to pick on any one player, but again, I think it’s fair to expect more than 0.13 goals per 90 minutes from a designated player who made ~$1.5 million last season.

Larrys Mabiala was another player who didn’t quite hit the form of previous years in green & gold, playing the fewest number of both games and minutes of any season since he arrived in Portland in 2017 (Excluding: 2017 when he arrived in June, and the condensed 2020 MLS season).

Mabiala started in five of the Timbers’ final 10 matches in 2022, and in those five matches, the Timbers took two points from a possible 15 while conceding 11 goals in the process. Comparatively, the five matches he didn’t start (or play in at all barring 3 minutes in Toronto) in that period saw the Timbers take 12 points from a possible 15, and only concede 6 goals.

Despite all of the issues and shortcomings on the pitch, two players in particular took giant leaps forward for the Timbers in 2022, and fans should be excited about their futures in Portland:

  • Santiago Moreno became a mainstay in the lineup in 2022, playing in all 34 of the Timbers matches and starting all but six of them. Moreno scored seven goals to go along with eight assists last year while playing anywhere from the right wing, center midfield, or even right wingback toward the end of the year. His play for the Timbers was rewarded with a call-up to the Colombian National Team last month (along with newly acquired Juan David Mosquera), and if he has another strong season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him move on to Europe for a big transfer fee in the near future.
  • Aljaz Ivacic exceeded all expectations after succeeding Steve Clark as the Timbers starting goalkeeper in 2022. Ivacic, nicknamed ‘Jazzy’ by his teammates and fans alike, led MLS in saves last season (122) despite conceding the fourth-most goals in MLS (50) with a save percentage of 69.1 percent (nice). Despite some statistics that might suggest otherwise (I fully believe clean sheets and goals against are far more of a reflection on the defense as a whole than just the goalkeeper) Ivacic was one of the best ‘keepers in MLS last season, and ‘kept’ the Timbers in a lot of games they could have drawn or lost.

The 2023 Offseason

Now that I’ve recapped how 2022 went for the Timbers, lets shift gears into the major developments that have transpired since the season ended on Oct. 9.

I’ll start with the biggest changes the club have made, which are both centered around the club’s front office.

On Jan. 11 the Timbers officially named Ned Grabavoy as the new General Manager of the club after Gavin Wilkinson was fired in the wake of U.S. Soccer’s investigation into misconduct within the NWSL last year. Grabavoy spent one season as a Timbers player in 2016 before becoming the club’s director of scouting and recruitment in 2017, and was promoted to technical director in 2019.

On Jan. 25 the Timbers officially named Heather Davis as the new CEO of the club, after Merritt Paulson announced on Oct. 11, 2022, that he would be stepping down from his role as CEO of both the Timbers and Thorns. Davis joined the Timbers as the club’s general counsel in May 2022, after spending nine years as the NFL’s lead counsel for international operations.

The turnover at GM and CEO represent change that was much-needed at the club’s highest level, and the first steps toward the club rebuilding a heavily fractured relationship with supporters after a tumultuous couple years. There is still a lot of work to be done in that regard, and it’s an extremely difficult task, but I’m hopeful the two parties can make strides toward rebuilding the trust that the previous front office had squandered.

Now, back to the on-field stuff!

On Oct. 17 the Timbers announced that they were declining contract options for Blake Bodily, George Fochive, Justin Vom Steeg, and Josecarlos Van Rankin. Bodily, a former Timbers academy/Homegrown player, unfortunately never quite cracked the first team —which has been a running theme for Homegrown players for years with the Timbers. Fochive, who was part of the Timbers’ 2015 MLS Cup winning squad, only played 30 minutes in 2022 after re-joining the club in 2021. The writing was on the wall for Van Rankin’s time in Portland when the club signed Mosquera last summer, and after a handful of promising performances from the new right back, declining Van Rankin’s purchase option was essentially a forgone conclusion.

On Nov. 10 the Timbers announced contract extensions for assistant coaches Carlos Llamosa, Miles Joseph, and Guillermo Valencia, along with the addition of former Timbers captain and MLS Cup 2015 winner Liam Ridgewell. Ridgy had been a part of the Timbers’ broadcast crew in 2022, and for what it’s worth, I’m selfishly upset that he won’t be around the Providence Park press box any more.

On Dec. 5 the Timbers announced the club-record signing of Evander da Silva Ferreira from Danish club Midtjylland for a reported $10 million transfer fee. Signed through at least 2026, Evander represents the biggest statement of intent with regard to the roster the Timbers have made since acquiring Yimmi Chara back in Jan. 2020. Evander will occupy a designated player spot for the Timbers, and will primarily be deployed as the #10 in Savarese’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.

Looking for a more in-depth look at the Timbers’ marquee signing? We asked Toke Theilade, who covers the Danish Superliga, for an Evander scouting report and what to expect from the Brazilian in Portland.

On Jan. 13 the Timbers announced that they had re-signed Nathan Fogaca through the 2023 MLS season, with a club option to extend the deal through 2024. Nathan scored two goals last season, both of which coming in the Timbers 7-2 win against Sporting Kansas City at home.

On Feb. 16 the Timbers announced that they had traded veteran centerback Bill Tuiloma to Charlotte FC for an initial $800k in General Allocation Money, with the potential for an additional $100k if certain performance incentives are reached. Tuiloma was a favorite amongst fans and team members alike, and his departure leaves a massive hole (both figuratively and literally) in Portland’s centerback depth chart.

Big Questions Facing the Timbers in 2023

The Timbers need another #9, and another centerback. When will those signings be made, and what type of player do they need?

The Timbers’ roster, as currently constructed, has two massive holes in it: striker and centerback. With Mora out for the foreseeable future, the Timbers enter the year with Niezgoda, Nathan, and Tega Ikoba as the three #9 options up top — the same group that they failed to make the playoffs with last season. The club are banking on Evander to unlock the offense, and while I think he will to a certain extent, the options they have until Mora comes back aren’t enough. Throughout the offseason multiple reports have suggested that the Timbers are in the market for a striker, but reports on the profile of said striker have varied.

The Timbers also ended 2022 in need of a refresh at centerback, and after Bill Tuiloma’s departure, that need is even more glaring. Three central defenders are not enough for a team that’s looking to play in as many games as possible, especially when you take into consideration those three missed 29 games between them in 2022. Couple that with losing 30 appearances from Tuiloma, and you’re an injury or two away from being up a creek without a paddle.

Despite the immediate need the Timbers have at both positions, don’t count on any signings walking through the door the the next couple weeks. MLS’ primary transfer window closes on April 24, and I would expect the club to take their time making sure they don’t take any missteps with any potential signings.

(Ed. note: Just about eight hours after this was published, MLS insider Tom Bogert reported that the Timbers are set to sign MLS veteran defender Eric Miller. Looks like the team was taking their time... until this preview dropped. Sorry Alex!!)

For my money the priority should be a signing a defender capable of starting first, and then shifting focus to a young DP striker later in the window, or potentially in the summer.

What do the Timbers need to do to improve on an underwhelming 2022?

As I laid out earlier, the Timbers need a lot more production at the top end of the pitch and to be a lot more compact in defense. It sounds really simple to say, but that’s where the conversation begins and ends for me.

Can the Timbers get more out of Niezgoda and Yimmi Chara? Will Ridgewell’s arrival on the coaching staff spark better and more consistant performances from the Timbers’ backline?

Those are the two questions I am most interested in seeing answered by the team in 2023.

How do Evander, Zac McGraw, and Juan Mosquera settle into the team as (projected) starters for the Timbers?

I think Evander has the potential to be an MVP-level player for the Timbers, one who’s capable of putting up double-digit goals and assists. I’d like to see him start the year at the top of a midfield triangle with Diego Chara and Eryk Williamson sitting as a double pivot behind him. His ability to find space was very noticeable at Timbers training, and when he got the ball he already knew what he was going to do with it, which should go a long way toward getting the best out of the forwards around him.

As for McGraw and Mosquera? I’m very optimistic about them forming a solid partnership on the right side of the Timbers’ backline. In the three appearances Mosquera made at the end of 2022, he already looks head and shoulders above Josecarlos Van Rankin in both attack and defense. McGraw also took a huge leap in 2022, and at times looked like the most solid centerback on the Timbers’ roster. *Reminisces about McGraw’s home performance against the Sounders back in August.*

How seriously will the Timbers take the U.S. Open Cup and the Leagues Cup in 2023?

I think it’s fair to say that the Timbers haven’t really moved the needle in the Open Cup since entering MLS in 2011, most infamously being knocked out of the competition by fifth-tier Cal FC in the round of 16 in 2012. The farthest the Timbers have ever reached in the competition is the semi-finals, doing so twice, most recently in 2019. In 2022 the Timbers were knocked out of the competition by LAFC in their first match of the competition, falling 2-0 in the round of 32 stage.

For the first time in club history the Timbers will be competing in the Leagues Cup, an international summer tournament featuring 47 teams from the top-two leagues in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. The Timbers will face the San Jose Earthquakes and Tigres UANL from Mexico in the 2023 group stage, and according to Ryan Clarke of the Oregonian, the Timbers will host all of their Leagues Cup group stage matches at Providence Park.

In my opinion, the Timbers should prioritize advancing to the latter stages of both competitions in 2023. There are only two opportunities outside of the regular MLS season for the Timbers to win silverware in 2023, and while making the playoffs is always the target, doing so at the expense of early-tournament exits in other competitions shouldn’t sit right with fans.

Games in these competitions often come mid-week, so naturally there will always be an element of rest/rotations for starters and players dealing with knocks. However, starting a mixture of youth, Timbers 2 and backups in early rounds of said competitions to me signals a lack of intent. It will be interesting to see what kind of emphasis the club puts on the cups this year.

Personal Predictions for the Season

I’m going to close this thing out with a bullet point list of my predictions for the Timbers’ 2023 season. Comment below with your predictions as well!

  • Top Scorer: Dairon Asprilla
  • Most Assists: Evander
  • Most Yellow Cards: This one was redundant — it’s obviously Diego Chara
  • Most Red Cards: Now that Van Rankin is gone, I’m going to guess Pablo Bonilla
  • Clean Sheets: Nine
  • Western Conference Finish: If they sign a starting striker and centerback, fourth. If they don’t, seventh.
  • Playoffs Finish: If they sign a starting striker and centerback, conference finals. If they don’t, first round elimination.
  • Best (Healthy) Starting XI: GK: Ivacic - Defense: Mosquera, McGraw, Zuparic, Bravo - Midfield: Diego Chara, Eryk Williamson, Evander - Forwards: Asprilla, Mora, Moreno.
  • Breakout Player: I’m torn between David Ayala and Juan Mosquera