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What Questions Remain About the Portland Timbers?

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Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Some of the big preseason questions that we had about the Portland Timbers have been answered, but others remain. The Timbers have one week until the kickoff of the Simple Invitational, formerly the Rose City Invitational, and only three weeks until the start of the season proper.

In those three weeks the Timbers will need to find answers to some of the biggest remaining questions of the offseason.

Who will be the team's starting defensive pairing?

With Liam Ridgewell set to return from his one and a half month loan to Wigan Athletic this week, the Timbers still have yet to see their designated player centerback matched up with one of the offseason's biggest acquisitions, Nat Borchers.

We have seen Norberto Paparatto paired up with Ridgewell previously, the two played three of 2014's last four games together and proved to be a generally solid pairing.

We have also seen Borchers and Paparatto together twice in the preseason, playing 105' together over the course of two matches.

In both pairings, Paparatto has been the more aggressive of the two centerbacks, leaving Ridgewell or Borchers to cover his mistakes as the last line of defense. It has been a system that has worked out well, as the Timbers have only let in two goals over Paparatto's last five games played in one of those two pairings. There are some obvious breakdowns, like the Houston Dynamo's lone goal in their 1-1 draw against the Timbers last weekend, when Paparatto slide for the ball high up the pitch and did not win it, exposing Borchers to a three on one break.

The inclusion of Ridgewell, who is quite simply not being paid DP money to ride the bench, changes things.

Before the start of the season, everyone's money was on Borchers to partner with Ridgewell in the center of the defense. What has not become clear, however, is what the dynamic between Borchers and Ridgewell will look like.

With three preseason games yet to go, the Timbers will need to make some quick decisions about their defense.

Will the Timbers have a rookie play a regular season minute for the first time since 2012?

Since Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Brent Richards in 2012, no Timbers player taken in the MLS Superdraft has made their debut with the club in their rookie year. In fact, since that pair, no Timbers player selected by the team in the Superdraft had made their debut, regardless of how long they have been in the league.

In the 2013 and 2014 drafts the Timbers took Schillo Tshuma, Aaron Long, Taylor Peay, George Fochive, Victor Chavez, Nikita Kotlov, Dylan Tucker-Gangnes, David Meves, Chris Hegngi. None of those players have played a single minute.

Tshuma, Peay, and Fochive are still with the team, and they are joined by a draft class full of well-regarded talent from the 2015 Superdraft.

Nick Besler, the Timbers' No. 5 overall pick, is a clearly skilled player in a particularly deep part of the Timbers' roster. He looked to have some difficulty getting on the pitch before not quite wowing the crowd quite as much as Timbers fans hoped during the Desert Friendlies.

Andrew Thoma, meanwhile, finds himself in a position where the Timbers seem to be well settled for depth, third in line at left back behind Jorge Villafana and fellow new arrival Jeanderson.

The rest of the Timbers' gaggle of newly drafted players look bound for a season spent with Timbers when they kick off next week.

Of course, there are some players who could surprise us. Anthony Manning has looked skilled in his appearances with the second team and could provide depth for the Timbers at centerback, a position where the team has historically needed it.

Kharlton Belmar, meanwhile, is an impressive athletic specimen with speed to burn and some surprising dribbling skills. If he can make it onto the first team, rather than signing directly with T2, and if he can impress over the course of the season, Belmar could be an option off the bench for the Timbers.

When will Diego Valeri and Will Johnson return to action?

After Friday's practice session, Johnson told the press that he is taking his recovery day by day. More importantly, he confirmed that he does not yet have a target date for his return to full training and, eventually, game fitness.

Both Johnson and Valeri have shown signs of obvious progress on the sidelines of the Timbers' training sessions since the start of preseason, but neither player is ready to rejoin practice outright.

Both players have unique challenges to deal with as they return to fitness. For Johnson the challenges are largely mental, having broken his leg on a hard challenge for a fifty-fifty ball and never having had to come back from a major injury before. For Valeri, who has dealt with a similar injury in his other knee earlier in his career, the challenges primarily come from the nature of the injury and the fact that it came so late in the year.

The pair were instrumental to the Timbers' success in 2013 and, although Johnson had his struggles, were two of the most influential players on the pitch last season as well. The sooner Johnson and Valeri can return, the stronger the Timbers will be. Still, as Johnson told the press last week, it is important that both players wait until they are fully fit and ready to contribute rather than risk themselves too early.