By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
Despite not being in the biggest market, lacking Hollywood or Middle Eastern owners, and not being the most famous MLS club, the Timbers have an owner, coach, and fan base with consistently high expectations. After winning the cup in 2015, very few changes were made to the roster and the league got better around them. They missed the playoffs last season and never found the spark that took them to the championship. Changes had to come, and some big additions (and subtractions) were made to improve the team. While it's too early to say if those moves were the right ones, one thing is clear: the Timbers want another MLS Cup.
2016 in review
Fresh off of an impressive run for an MLS Cup Championship in 2015, expectations were sky high for Portland in 2016. After a sluggish start to the season (now a trend of the Caleb Porter era) that saw them with only 12 points in as many games, hopes for the season were quickly revised downwards. Only once all season did the Timbers win back-to-back games, and they were never able to find the consistent form they rode to the cup in 2015. Though the data suggest they were among the most unlucky teams in terms of expected goals against, the defense of 2016 just never looked the same after Jorge Villafaña was sold and Nat Borchers suffered an ultimately career-ending injury midway through the season. Adam Larsen Kwarasey also returned to Europe after an injury led to longtime Timber Jake Gleeson earning the starting ‘keeper role, and it took until late in the season for newcomer Vytas Andriuškevičius (ahem, Vytas from here on out) to solidify the leftback spot. And what started as a season of hope for the development of two stars of their cup run - Dairon Asprilla and Designated Player Lucas Melano - ended with neither playing after Asprilla was sent on loan following questions about his attitude and Melano was benched for his consistently poor form.
But it wasn't all bad. Grinning gladiator Diego Chara finished in the top four in tackles won for the 4th straight season. The attack remained potent, finishing 3rd in expected goals for in the league. Fanendo Adi scored 16 goals for a 2nd straight season, Diego Valeri finished 5th in MLS in expected goals plus expected assists, Darlington Nagbe continued to be the same Darlington Nagbe, and even Darren Mattocks showed promise as a starting winger towards the end of the season.
Though they found more success in the 2nd half of the season, the Timbers were never able to find the form that led them on their epic run to MLS Cup the season before. Ultimately Portland finished 7th, missing out on the postseason and not giving themselves the chance to defend their title. They've brought in some key players to try to avoid that fate in 2017.
2017 offseason additions/subtractions
The biggest change was addition by subtraction; Melano's dead weight was sent back to Argentina, freeing up his DP contract spot. Also gone are retirees Borchers and Ned Grabavoy, along with club legend Jack Jewsbury, all of whom have taken other jobs within the organization. The other two departures of note were Jermaine Taylor and Steven Taylor, neither of whom were able to fill the hole left by Borchers in central defense and probably commanded salaries beyond their production.
In come a series of additions meant to get Portland back atop the West. The biggest name is that of Argentine Designated Player Sebastian Blanco, a player who will be asked to fill the role that Melano never could; as a top-level creative and attacking right winger. While Melano was acquired for his potential, Blanco is supposed to be the finished product.
Also added were two Tico internationals from Saprissa in the form of David Guzman, who will play slightly behind Chara as defensive cover in the midfield, and MLS veteran Roy Miller, who is expected to provide centerback depth. After presumed halfback starter Gbenga Arokoyo went down in preseason with a season-ending Achilles tear, the team brought in former USL Timber Lawrence Olum, who is probably a stopgap measure until a more starting caliber centerback can be acquired. Former number one SuperDraft pick Chance Myers will add fullback experience off the bench, and Portland traded for Jeff Atinella to back up Gleeson. Asprilla is back from his loan and Porter’s preseason lineups suggest he’ll probably be one of the first subs off the bench.
USL affiliate Timbers 2 is also starting to show its worth after the first team signed youngsters Rennico Clarke, Victor Arboleda, and 3rd string goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh. None are expected to see many minutes in 2016, but all look to be promising MLS prospects. U20 USMNT international striker Jeremy Ebobisse was taken in the draft and he’ll try to fight for minutes behind Adi and Jack McInerny.
Gleeson earned his job as the starter in 2016 and he’ll stay there for the coming season. His expected goals minus goals against numbers were about average for the league (and much better than Kwarasey's), and his shot-stopping was demonstrably better than his predecessor's. Still, he’ll need to improve his distribution if he wants to be an elite MLS goalkeeper. Atinella is a starting-quality backup, and he should be able to fill in capably if Gleeson gets injured or suspended for his offseason drunken driving arrest.
While goalkeeper depth won’t be a problem, defense is where Portland is thinnest. The loss of Arokoyo for the season was a serious blow, though Olum has looked fine if not particularly notable in preseason. Captain Liam Ridgewell (who avoided prosecution for his own drunk driving arrest on a technicality) is a solid if unspectacular centerback. Miller had a tumultuous career with the Red Bulls before returning to Costa Rica, but he rarely played at his natural position of centerback. He hasn’t joined the team yet in preseason and is probably unlikely to see many minutes unless there are more injuries. Clarke started some preseason games when Arokoyo went down, but showed his inexperience and will probably only get minutes in Open Cup games.
The fullbacks should be solid. Vytas was brought in mid-season last year and provided a good attacking edge from left back. His crossing will be an important part of Portland’s chance creation, but his one-on-one defending is suspect and lack of pace can be exploited by speedy wingers. Jamaican international Alvas Powell is in his third season as the full-time starter, though he didn't have his best season last year. He’s only 22 and has the defensive chops to be among the best backs in MLS, but his lack of progression over the last couple seasons is somewhat concerning. Powell’s passing is poor and his tendency to go on long dribbles that end in an easy giveaway or a shanked cross into the bleachers are endlessly frustrating. Still, he’s better than most right backs in the league and he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. He’s had a strong preseason, including multiple assists from crosses, so there’s reason to hope that this will be the year he takes a step forward.
Portland’s already strong midfield has been bolstered further in the offseason. The trio of Chara, Nagbe and Valeri were already among the best in MLS. Though he showed some hints of his age last season, Chara’s rugged if indelicate style still makes him one of the better (and most underrated) defensive midfielders in the league. Nagbe’s skill as a ball shuttler has gotten more notice since he started getting minutes for the national team, but he's also becoming a better chance creator. Although he’s mostly been deployed on the right and in the middle under Porter, this season he’s making the move to the left as an inverted winger, where the numbers suggest he’s at his best. Valeri is the Timbers’ best player and the glue in their attack that holds everything together. His 20.62 expected goals and assists were fifth most in the league in 2016, and he’ll still be relied on to run the offense.
Now joining those three will be Guzman and Blanco, both of whom are expected to be big upgrades over the players they’re replacing. Guzman will slot in behind Chara in the number six role, allowing Chara to get more forward and play more box-to-box. Blanco replaces the mercurial Melano on the right wing, and if preseason is any indication he's already a more more refined product. He’s strong on the ball and an even better passer. Sound familiar? While he and Valeri have meshed well in preseason, their styles are very similar. It is probably reasonable to expect Valeri’s stats to drop slightly this year, not because of decay in his skill but because Blanco looks happy to help lessen his load. The Timbers offense already looks to be firing on all cylinders (see the gif to the right), so they'll be hoping to score goals in bunches from the opening whistle.
Mattocks did enough to earn his starting spot on the wing towards the end of 2016, though he’ll be coming off the bench in 2017. Also returned is Asprilla, who is clearly glad to be back in the Rose City and will provide more wing depth. Jack Barnby won’t see many minutes but he’s still young and versatile - he played outside back and on the wing last year, and has even been deployed as the number 10 in preseason. Arboleda isn’t expected to produce this season, but he impressed in preseason and may have earned himself some first team substitute appearances.
Up top, Fanendo Adi was second only to David Villa in expected goals last year. He signed a new contract at the start of 2016, but tried to force a move to Liga MX midway through the year, then missed a team flight to Seattle and his relationship with the front office seemed strained. Eventually the move was denied and he continued to bang in goals unimpeded. He’s a bona-fide elite goalscorer, and if he continues to score at his present rate (16 goals each of the last two years) then this is probably his last year in MLS before he's sold at a considerable profit. The Timbers will to ride him hard until he’s gone. McInerney was inconsistent last year and there are rumors he still may be moved, but he’s a decent (if expensive) backup striker. The team is high on Ebobisse, so if McInerney is traded he'll probably grab those minutes.
It’s been a series of ups and downs for the Timbers under Porter. They made the Western Conference finals in his first year as coach, then failed to make the playoffs in his second. They won the MLS Cup in his third year, then didn't qualify in 2016. All signs point to this pattern continuing. The additions of Blanco and Guzman, coupled with a healthy Valeri, Nagbe, and Adi, mean this might be the best and most well-rounded attack in MLS. Questions remain about the center of the defense, but as long as it is halfway decent, the Timbers will be happy to simply outscore their opponents.
But there are plenty of ways it could go wrong. If Guzman doesn't quite fit in next to Chara, Blanco and Valeri end up getting in each other’s way instead of complimenting one another, and Adi loses form or gets injured, another season fighting for the final playoff spot isn't hard to imagine.
Still, if the new pieces fit in, they’re able to stay reasonably healthy, and can get some stability in the back, this Portland team is fully capable of another playoff run that saw them lifting the Cup in 2015. It's a team put together to win an MLS Championship… now they just have to go do it.