By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
Coming off of an epic end-of-season run that ended in the Timbers hoisting the first trophy in the club’s 40 year history, expectations are high among the Rose City faithful. While significant changes aren’t usually expected for a championship winning side, Portland has seen quite a few. If everything falls into place for the new arrivals, the team can stay healthy, and Caleb Porter’s patented single-pivot midfield continues to unlock defenses, this club could join Houston, Los Angeles and DC United as the only teams to ever repeat as champs. If all the pieces don’t click, we could see a repeat of the 2014 season when the club’s lofty preseason expectations were met with a finish outside of the playoffs.
2015 in review
The best team during the long MLS season doesn’t usually win the playoffs, and last year was no exception. If you consider the full length of the season, the Red Bulls and FC Dallas were unquestionably the best teams in their respective conferences. And while the Supporter’s Shield is nothing to shake an energy drink at, it’s certainly not the most coveted prize.
So if the Timbers weren’t the best team in MLS last year; they were the best team in MLS when it mattered. With three games remaining in their season and daunting road games in Salt Lake City and L.A. ahead of them, our own playoff odds gave them a less than 50% chance to make the playoffs. After a great run of results in the spring, it looked again like their status was “same as it ever was” and the team was doomed to barely miss the playoffs for a second season in a row.
But then it happened. Portland caught fire at exactly the right time. On the road with nothing to lose, Caleb Porter decided to go all Tony Montana, changing his formation to a 4-3-3 with a single pivot named Diego Chara. It resulted in a 1-0 win at RSL and kept them in the playoff race. Sticking with now much-ballyhooed formation change that set Darlington Nagbe free in the middle of the park, the Timbers went to L.A. and got a shocking 5-3 win against a Galaxy team that had only lost once previously at home. They took care of business at home against Colorado in the last game of the season to guarantee their playoff spot.
Then on a short rest it looked like the season was over again as Sporting KC scored to go ahead 2-1 early in extra time of the knockout round. But a Maxi Urruti volley leveled things right before the final whistle, and it was onto penalty kicks. We all know how that ended.
After that, Portland was in complete control. Though they wouldn’t have home field advantage the rest of the way, the Timbers never trailed again in 2015. It is no exaggeration to say that the Timbers weren’t that good until mid-October. But they were good-enough, and they became dominant at the most opportune time.
To every person in Portland that now sees a star over their team’s crest, the fact their team barely made the playoffs means nothing. It may be cliché, but there’s no trophy for being the best team. The trophy goes to the team that is the best in the playoffs. Last year, the Timbers were the best when it mattered most.
Goalkeeper and Defense
But even before they had recovered from their celebratory hangovers, the team had already begun to make changes for the season ahead. There are big questions looming on the left side of the formation, and Portland’s finish may come down to how successful those changes are. But let’s start with what will be staying the same.
Adam Kwarasey returns for his 2nd season with the team. Though he did fine in his first season, he wasn’t exactly as advertised. Brought in to be a Manuel Neuer-light style goalkeeper that wasn’t afraid to use his feet, it quickly became clear he was no such thing. While his distribution was a definite upgrade over predecessor Donovan Ricketts, Kwarasey was inconsistent and prone to error. His final preseason game against Chicago was an especially poor showing. Though he’s become a fan favorite for the performance of his posts in the shootout vs Sporting KC, he probably represented the weakest part of Portland’s stingy defense in 2015. He also allowed almost four more goals than the average MLS goalkeeper would have expected if they had faced the same shots, 3rd worst in MLS.
Jake Gleeson is the perpetual backup (he’s been with the organization since before it joined MLS), and at 25 the Kiwi will probably be looking to get his starting shot in MLS soon. Barring injury to Gleeson and Kwarasey, rookie Wade Hamilton won’t see any first team minutes in 2016.
|S. Le Toux||14||106||13.21%|
*Minimum 30 attempted crosses
On the right side of defense will be Jamaican Alvas Powell. Possibly the most enigmatic player on the team, he’s seen his stock grow precipitously since joining the club in 2013. Last season was a breakout year as he led MLS in duels won, and was an integral part of Porter’s attack by getting forward down the sideline. But he could also be endlessly frustrating. Often he would break forward at pace, only to be dispossessed or give the ball away. His cross completion rate of 14.4% was 10th worst in the league, and his overall pass completion rate of 64.5% was 3rd worst among MLS defenders. Still, passing can be taught and Powell is still only 21, so he will continue to improve. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see the Timbers sell high – a move next offseason seems most likely.
In my preview last year, I noted that for the first time in the team’s MLS history Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell would provide a consistent and reliable centerback pairing. And this consistency paid off in spades, with them being mostly reliable defenders in front of Kwarasey, and sometimes covering up the defensive gaps created by Powell and Jorge Villafana’s propensity to get forward.
But now Villafana is gone to Santos, and Chris Klute has been brought in from Columbus replace him. After a breakout 2013 season in Colorado, many had Klute pegged for the USMNT and beyond. But after a slight regression in 2014, he was sold to Columbus, where he started only eight games last season. The Timbers are counting on a return to form, though early signs about his recovery from offseason surgery aren’t great. When healthy, he’ll be expected to start at left back. Until then, it looks like it will probably be Ridgewell on the left and Re-entry Draft pick Jermaine Taylor, who has looked good in preseason, starting next to Borchers.
If not, it will be former Akron Zip Zarek Valentin on the left, but he’ll probably end the season with the consistently improving Taylor Peay as a depth piece. 2015 draft pick Andy Thoma also looks likely to make his first appearance with the first team sometime this year.
It’s a deeper defensive corps than the team has ever had, and they will hope to continue the success that gave them the 4th best xGA last season. Still, the loss of Villfana will be felt – none of his potential replacements offer his work-rate or ability to get forward – and Borchers and Ridgewell aren’t getting younger or faster, so expect some regression.
Pardon the mixed metaphors, but the midfield is where the wood-cookies butter their bread. It all begins with the holy trinity (or is it trini-D?): Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and Darlington Nagbe. They will form a V in the center of the midfield, with Chara at the base and Nagbe and Valeri controlling the space in front of him.
For the first time since 2013, Porter will have his best available midfield to start the season. That mostly centers on a healthy Valeri, who will give Porter hope that his team will be able to score, something Portland has struggled with at the start of the last few seasons.
Chara will continue to be one of the least-appreciated players in the league and among its leaders in fouls committed. But rest assured, he’ll have a smile on his face when he does it. The concern behind Chara is depth, as last year’s backup, George Fochive, was sold in the offseason. Ben Zemanski has come back from a torn ACL and will hope to return to his 2013 form. And team legend Jack Jewsbury will be the versatile jack-of-all-trades that can plug holes in most defensive and midfield roles.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before (on second thought, don’t), but this might be the year Darlington Nagbe breaks out. Though his mainline stats suggest he’s stalled somewhat in his development (see the table below), he’s in a new position in the center of midfield that allows him more space than he’s used to. From the center of the park he has the opportunity to pass to either wing, find Valeri next to him, or put his head down and bomb upfield (the video to the right is a perfect example).
On top of that, with a full season in the center he can be counted on to set a career high in defensive actions. His unsung ability to dispossess his opponent then break on the counter-attack could be huge for the Timbers’ attack. Couple that with a huge jump in his willingness to create his own shot (he jumped from less than 20% unassisted shots in the prior two years to 28% last year) and you have a confluence of events that could set him off.
|Year||Shots||UnAst%||G||A||xG||G-xG||xA||xG + xA||Touch%|
On the right wing will be Columbian dynamo Dairon Asprilla. Though a relatively unheralded acquisition last offseason, he was a great depth piece in 2015 that eventually earned a starting job. While occasionally he switches off on defense, his speed and creativity are way ahead of most MLS wingers. If he can be more consistent, he could end up being one of the bigger surprises of the season. His occasional bits of brilliance give a glimpse of how much potential he has.
Missing though will be Rodney Wallace, who has been the catalyst on the left for all three of Porter’s seasons as coach. A vital two-way player, he’s replaced by 2015 midseason DP acquisition Lucas Melano, a right-footed player that doesn’t play much defense (notice a theme?). Expect teams to attack down their right side to exploit Melano’s defensive apathy and the inexperience of Klute (and his early season stand-in) with his new team.
Still, Melano is a much better offensive player than (converted defender) Wallace ever was. Like Asprilla, he has shown how much upside he has. Unlike Asprilla, he came with a hefty price tag. Based on the lengths that Portland went to in their effort to get Melano, the expectations for him are enormous. While the early results show he’s no Kris Boyd, he also has a way to go before he proves he was worth the investment. He’s been granted the keys to the left side of midfield and doesn’t have much competition behind him, so if he’s going to break out as the player the organization thinks he is he’ll have every opportunity to do so.
Note: Barely an hour after this article posted we've learned the Mystery Winger has finally arrived. There isn't much known about Jack Barmby, but he's a left-footed winger. If he's as good as his pedigree suggests, it might mean Melano moves back over to the right side and Asprilla is pushed to the bench.
No player had a more up and down season last year than Fanendo Adi. After scoring in bunches (no seriously, he has nine two-goal games and only seven one-goal games) following his acquisition during the 2014 season, he started 2015 in a serious slump. The hashtag #Adios (get it?) was momentarily popular in Oregon, as he had only four goals through the first 14 games. But he scored another brace in the 15th game and ended the season with six goals in the final five games, finishing with 16 and a team record for the MLS era. Adi will hope to do as well for the upcoming season, though he’s likely to miss Villafana and Wallace; they combined to assist on six of his 25 goals over the last two seasons.
Backing him up will be Jack McInerney, who will try to fill the shoes of the departed Urruti. If he gets enough time, McInerney could be a nice yin to Adi’s yang. As a more a fox-in-the-box finisher than Adi’s preferred method of holding the ball up, he may struggle if he doesn’t get the service from Asprilla and Melano he needs. Still, he’s nominally outperformed his xG numbers each of the last four seasons, which suggests he may be a better pure scorer than he’s given credit for. Expectations are relatively low for Jack Mac, but if all goes right he could approach double digits in goals.
Portland led MLS in TSR last year, meaning they took more shots than they allowed by a margin better than any other team. It’s not a foolproof measure (a tap-in from one foot away is counted as equal to a shot from 50 yards), but it did paint a picture that their title was no fluke. This was a well-balanced team, and they benefited from getting hot at the right time. Still, it will be difficult to repeat in 2016.
On paper, it looks like they lost ground in the offseason. The subtractions of Villafana and Wallace cannot be overstated, and Klute and Melano have a lot to prove as they attempt to fill those holes on the left. If they can't, the Timbers could easily miss the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference.
Still, Melano will benefit from increased comfort in a new league and starting the season with his team. The added defensive depth will help Porter navigate CONCACAF Champions League and the US Open Cup. It's probably safe to pencil in Portland for another appearance in the first round play-in game, and if Porter can get his team playing its best at the season’s end again, anything is possible.