By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
The 2014 season was a disappointing one for Portland. A preseason favorite by many to win MLS cup after an impressive run to the 2013 Western Conference finals, the Timbers ultimately finished one point out of the playoff picture.
But there is reason for Timbers fans to have high hopes for 2015. After sitting dead-last in MLS eight weeks into last season, Portland found its old form. The only team that accumulated more points in the 2nd half of the season was the eventual MLS cup winning Galaxy.
Portland made big offseason moves to bolster their suspect defense, but have also endured a slate of injuries to their midfield. And Coach Caleb Porter still needs to find a way to balance the playing time and talents of his young strikers. The success or failure of the Timbers season depends on how those three issues are handled.
Since the beginning of our dataset in 2011, below are each of Portland’s expected goals against (xGA) and where that ranked in the league. A prolific offense has made the team's goal differential look respectable, but aside from the 2013 season when Donovan Ricketts won Goalkeeper of the Year, preventing goals has been a recurring struggle.
For that reason, nearly all of Portland's offseason changes came to improve their struggling defensive corps. Step one was addition by subtraction; aging goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts was selected by Orlando in the expansion draft, fullback Michael Harrington (with his large salary) was sent to Colorado, and controversial and unpredictable centerback Pa Modou-Kah departed for the Whitecaps. While all three players had extended periods of success wearing the green and gold, each had their problems. The 37 year old Ricketts had begun to show serious signs of slowing down, Harrington had lost his starting job to the more attack-minded Jorge Villafana, and Kah was prone to inexplicable and costly mistakes.
Stepping in for Ricketts and Kah are two players that Porter hopes to build his team around. Veteran Nat Borchers was acquired in a trade with RSL and Ghanaian Adam Kwarasey (who you may remember from the first minute of the USA's the World Cup) was brought from the Swedish Allsvenskan where he won 2013 Goalkeeper of the Year.
The intentions of these signings are clear. Kwarasey is a Neuer-light style keeper; he isn't afraid to come at attackers outside his box, and is very comfortable with the ball at his feet. This style is in direct opposition to Ricketts, who rarely ventured outside the 18 yard box and preferred throwing the ball into touch rather than kicking it. Kwarasey would seem to fit much better into Porter's possession and passing focused system, allowing the team to build up from the back rather than beginning with Ricketts' booming punts.
While Kwarasey is still largely unknown, Borchers is an established MLS vet. He'll bring plenty of playoff experience to the backline, pairing with DP Liam Ridgewell in an attempt to provide some stability to a centerback pairing that has been in flux seemingly since Portland's first MLS season.
The young Alvas Powell, who already has 12 caps for Jamaica, came on strong in the second half of 2014 and will start on the right side of defense. While his defending is sometimes suspect, he has proven very effective in aiding the attack up the sidelines.
Villafana lines up on the left behind Rodney Wallace, with whom he has developed a great rapport. Like Powell, he isn't afraid to get forward, and his crosses are often things of beauty. For the first time to start a season, Portland seems to have its back four locked in place. It isn't overstating things to say that the success or failure of the Timbers' season may ride on the ability of Kwarasey and Borchers to seamlessly integrate themselves alongside Ridgewell, Powell, and Villafana.
In front of Borchers no significant changes were made. This has been one of the top scoring teams in MLS since the arrival of Porter, and the team looks content to stick with the attacking talent it already has. When healthy, this is arguably the best midfield in the league. Unfortunately, playmaker and magician Diego Valeri is out until at least May with a torn ACL, captain Will Johnson will miss the first month of the season recovering from a broken leg, and Ben Zemanski, who was filling in for Johnson, tore his ACL in the timbers preseason game on Sunday. To say the Timbers' midfield is has been depleted by injury is an understatement.
But that is not to say the midfield will be a bad one. Wallace has been an elite attacking wing down the left since Porter moved him up from defense. Diego Chara can be counted on to be in the top five in MLS in both fouls and tackles, and is one of the most intelligent and underrated players in the league. Darlington Nagbe continued to progress last season despite a dip in goal-scoring (he had a career high in assists), and led all of MLS with 238 duels won. Finally, Gaston "La Gata" Fernandez has proven a capable fill-in for Valeri, and would probably be a regular starter on most MLS teams.
The question mark in the midfield will be who steps into the hole left by Johnson and Zemanski. If Porter opts not to change his formation or tactics, Jack Jewsbury or rookie Nick Besler are the closest to a like-for-like swap. But Porter has suggested in interviews he may instead switch to a single holding midfielder - Chara - which would likely move 2nd year player George Fochive or newcomer Dairon Asprilla, who has impressed in preseason, into the starting lineup.
Unlike the defense, Portland's midfield is likely to look the same at the end of 2015 as it did the end of 2014. It also is likely that a very different lineup will start game one than game thirty-four. Establishing balance for a midfield that has been ravaged by injuries will be the most challenging job for Porter to start the season.
Adi or Urruti? Urruti or Adi?
While it is still unclear who will be providing them service from the midfield, Fanendo Adi and Maximiliano Urruti are the clear-cut choices up top. With nine goals in 24 appearances last year and a DP contract, Adi is Porter's choice to start. He is a giant 6'4", 185 pound target-man who will hold up play and work off of Fernandez and Nagbe to create chances. His 0.7 expected goals per 90 minutes put him among the likes of Alvaro Saborio, Obafemi Martins, and Bradley Wright-Phillips last year.
But Urruti is the fan favorite. His pace and flair off the bench was a big lift for the Timbers last season, and he seemed to only score important goals in close games. That was in contrast to Adi, who had four multi-goal games, but all four of those games were decided by two goals or more. Adi running up the score against Chivas just wasn't as impressive as Urruti getting winners versus the Galaxy and Red Bulls.
These are two young (both are 24) goalscorers that many teams would clamor to acquire. For Portland to do well it will have to avoid the early-season scoring drought that dragged down the 2014 season. Rather ominously, goals have been hard to come by for the 1st team in preseason. If they want to contend for MLS Cup, Adi and Urruti will be counted on to produce.
Plenty of questions remain for the Timbers. Will this season emulate 2013's success or 2014's disappointment? Is the defense finally stable or will the new additions fail to fit in? Will Valeri and Johnson return to their old form when they come back from injury, or will they be slow to recover? Will Adi and Urruti score in bunches, or will they struggle to find service in the right positions? The answer to the first question will be determined by the answer to the others.
This is a team with a wide range of possibilities. If the defense is reliable, the midfield can adapt, and the attack is as expected, Portland is a dark-horse candidate for MLS Cup and the US Open Cup. If Kwarasey and the defense can't mesh, the injuries to the midfield can't be covered up, and the goals don't come, this team could just as easily finish near the bottom of a loaded Western Conference. Only time will tell.