By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
On the back of humanitarian and league MVP Diego Valeri, the 2017 Timbers won the Western Conference and thought they had a chance at a second MLS Cup. Unfortunately, injuries struck at the worst time and they bowed out of the playoffs with barely a whimper. With a new coach and some shrewd offseason signings, Portland will try again to end their season with an addition to their trophy case.
2017 in review
Last season was an unconventional one for the Timbers. Under the Caleb Porter era of leadership, two things could be counted on in Portland; that Diego Chara would end the season with a smile and the Timbers would struggle to start the season. Shockingly, neither were to be so in 2017.
In each of Porter’s four prior seasons as coach, the Timbers had struggled out of the gate, usually finding themselves near the bottom of the conference upon entering April. But 2017 turned out to be a year of change in more ways than most Timbers fans could have imagined. Portland jumped out to a hot start and, despite a mid-season slump, ultimately only spent a couple days below the red line all season.
They won the Western Conference, beating their main rival to the north on tiebreakers, and had hope for another shot at the MLS Cup. Those hopes died on a cow pasture in Texas when Larrys Mabiala injured his hip and diminutive destroyer Diego Chara broke his foot. Those injuries, an ongoing saga involving striker Fanendo Adi (who made his final appearance of 2017 in August), a hostile cup of mate, and a torn Achilles for defensive utility man Roy Miller all combined to dash hopes of another cup run. Instead, they bowed out quietly in a 2-1 home loss to Houston. Portland's season was like Al Capone's secret vault: the journey was full of possibility, but once inside there was nothing but dirt.
But the real story of the 2017 Timbers was Diego Valeri. The best Timbers player ever cemented his place in the history books and earned naming rights over the next bridge or gondola built in Portland. When Fanendo Adi went out, Valeri pulled a Greg Jennings and put the team on his back. He was having his best MLS season before he set an MLS record by scoring in nine consecutive games. Then El Maestro single-handedly got his team to the playoffs with his 21 goals and nine assists. Build. The Statue.
There were other players on the team, too. DP signing Sebastian Blanco performed admirably in his first MLS season, bouncing between the left and right wings on his way to eight goals (6.04 xG) and eight assists (four secondary and four primary assists on 4.39 xA).
While his return to MLS was initially met with jeers, I say with zero sarcasm that Roy Miller may have been the Timbers’ 2nd most important player in 2017. When presumed starting centerback Gbenga Arokoyo went down in preseason with a torn Achilles, Miller stepped in and performed admirably. When the other starter, Liam Ridgewell, missed a majority of the season with his own injury, Miller paired with fellow new addition Lawrence Olum (among others) to keep things under control. Considered a depth piece before the season started, Miller performed better than many of the starting centerbacks the Timbers have acquired in past seasons. Sadly, he'll miss 2018 while he recovers from the aforementioned torn Achilles.
Darlington Nagbe continued to be Darlington Nagbe: a calm, cool, and collected MLS player, who always seems on the verge of having a breakout season. If you haven’t already, read Tiotal Football's great analysis of his contribution to Portland last season, but here are my main takeaways: he doesn't turn the ball over, he’s still the best shuttler in MLS, he is good for one or two highlight-reel goals per season (he only scored three), and doesn't do a lot else. As a rational human being who seems to value his own happiness and his family’s well-being over being the best soccer player in the world, Nagbe looks unlikely to ever reach his sky-high potential, which is perfectly fine.
Given Nagbe's unique style, his impact is harder to measure than most attacking players'. In terms of traditional attacking stats (if you can call expected goals and expected assists traditional), Dairon Asprilla and Nagbe made roughly the same contribution to the Timbers’ offense in 2017, only Asprilla did it in 1000 fewer minutes. The only hint at Nagbe’s importance is the xBuildup Goal Chain number (which measures a player’s contribution to passing sequences that lead to shots, even when that player doesn’t make the final pass or take the shot). Whereas Asprilla didn't contribute much beyond his own shots and assists, Nagbe led the team (and was 9th in MLS) in his contribution to attacking buildup.
|2017 Player||Mins||xG||G||xA||A||xG p96||G p96||xA p96||xA p96||xB||xB p96|
So what does that mean? It's a complicated way of showing something we already knew: Nagbe would much rather make the easy square pass than attempt a cross into the box, and he would much rather make a backpass than send in a through ball. Is Asprilla a better player? Heck no. But if Benny Feilhaber is on one end of the “he tries shit” spectrum, Nagbe is on the other. He will forever be appreciated in Portland and his absence will certainly be felt - especially on the counter attack - but the team should be happy with the $1.05 million in allocation money they got for him.
First and foremost, Caleb Porter is gone. In steps former Cosmos coach and Metrostar Giovanni Savarese. The Cosmos won three NASL championships under his leadership, but this is still a significant step up. He finds himself in a similar situation with the Timbers, with some important differences. The Cosmos and Timbers both expect to win now, but there is much more parity in MLS than NASL. Both teams are willing to spend money, but Portland must contend with a salary cap. Both teams play in a stadium with field turf, but Portland's has fans surrounding it.
The biggest on-field change is the loss of Nagbe, who was sent to Atlanta for a dump truck full of cash. It's still unclear if the dump truck can be re-purposed to help install grass at Providence Park. Also departing was Darren Mattocks, who provided a nice (literal) change-of-pace from Adi at striker, and performed admirably once Adi went down. The only other notable departures were Ben Zemanski and Amobi Okugo, who provided spotty defensive midfield depth.
An influx of TAM from the league and the Nagbe trade clearly played a large part in the Timbers’ offseason additions. Hoping to plug the hole left by Nags is Andy Polo, a Peruvian international who joins from Morelia in Liga MX. Samuel Armenteros, a Swedish player who scored 19 goals in the Eredivise last season, will be serious competition for Adi. Centerback Julio Cascante arrives as centerback depth, but will push for starting minutes. Farther down the bench, the team has added homegrowns Foster Langsdorf and Eryk Williamson (via DC United), who should see plenty of time with T2 this season. Andres Flores and Cristhian Paredes should see first team minutes when there are injuries or international call-ups.
One thing about all these new players: not one has ever played in an MLS game. History has shown that most foreign signings (Diego Valeris of the world excepted) tend to take a bit of time to adapt to the league, and there's no reason to expect this group will differ.
Upon joining Portland, Savarese initially planned to pick up where Porter left off with the 4-5-1 formation that the team has used for years now. It’s built around Valeri as the head of a midfield triangle in front of Chara and David Guzman. That’s likely the main formation the team will use, but they’ve also experimented successfully in preseason with a narrow 4-4-2 that allows Armenteros and Adi on the field at the same time. Given that Chara is still recovering from his broken foot (he played fewer than 90 minutes in preseason), my Savarese Sense tells me that he may surprise some folks by starting the season in the 4-4-2.
Jake Gleeson started last year as the clear number one goalkeeper, but some mental mistakes and poor distribution followed by an injury allowed Jeff Attinella to take the job from him. They’re both replacement level MLS goalkeepers with different weaknesses. Gleeson is generally considered the better shot-stopper, though his distribution is often terrible. Attinela is better in possession, but not a great shot stopper. Atinella looks to have held on to the starting role under Savarese, and will hope to replicate his 2017 season which saw him save almost exactly as many goals as expected.
Alvas Powell lost and earned back his starting job at right fullback last season, but during a solid preseason he’s locked it down. The concern with Powell is his sometimes over-eager desire to get forward, which occasionally turns into beautiful goals but often ends in a turnover. Powell attempted 251 passes in the attacking third last season – that’s 5th on the team – but completed them at a five percent lower rate than expected. Defensively, Powell is as fast as anyone in in MLS, and pairs well with the usually less-mobile Portland centerbacks. He uses his speed to occasionally cover up for mistakes, but on the whole is one of the better defensive fullbacks in the league. Still only 23 in his 6th season in MLS, Powell will hope to finally take a step forward after a multi-year plateau. Zarek Valentin, the last Akron Zip on the roster after the departure of Porter, is a capable backup.
Three weeks ago, Lithuanian international Vytas Andriuškevičius (henceforth Vytas) was a shoe-in to start at left fullback. But a dismal preseason that culminated in an injury for Vytas has been contrasted with some stellar performances by homegrown Michael Farfan. The severity of Vytas’ injury is still unclear, but Farfan may have already earned the job outright. I’m keeping Vytas ahead of Farfan in my depth chart, but it looks like a coin-flip right now.
At left centerback will be captain and swimsuit enthusiast Liam Ridgewell. The results when he is in the lineup speak for themselves, but there are reasons to believe his status as unquestioned starter may be in jeopardy. First, he was only healthy enough to play in 15 games last season and 22 the season before, so durability is a question for the 33 year-old.
Second, he seems to have lost a step. While far from a perfect measure, one hint at that may be in his defensive actions. In each season from 2014 to 2016, he never averaged more than 0.7 tackles per game, and intercepted between 1.4 and 2.5 passes per game. In 2017, Ridgy attempted 1.1 tackles (that's 0.6 more than the season prior) and only 0.5 interceptions (almost one fewer than 2016, which was the fewest since 2013). Does a rise in tackles paired with a drop in interceptions mean he’s lost a step? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s something to keep an eye on as he is pressured by younger players behind him on the bench.
Alongside Ridgewell is going to be Larrys Mabiala. Mabiala was acquired as an emergency signing last summer prompted by a series of injures that had Portland centerbacks being compared to Spinal Tap drummers. He steadied the ship, and will resume that role in 2018. Julio Cascante was brought from Saprissa, and could put pressure on Ridegwell or Mabiala if either struggle. Given Ridgwell’s frequent injuries, Cascante’s probably a lock to see 1500 minutes across all competitions.
The defensive midfielders will be Diego Chara and David Guzman. Chara is still getting fit after his injury and Guzman looked poor in preseason, but they’re still the best at their positions. Chara will win a lot of tackles, commit a lot of fouls, and have the same grin on his face. Guzman will take the set-pieces and help build the attack from the back. Cristhian Paredes will fill in when Guzman is at the World Cup, and Lawrence Olum provides further depth.
The Force of the Timbers’ attack runs through Diego Valeri. It surrounds him, it penetrates him, it binds the team together. Don’t expect the same incredible numbers he had last year, but he can be counted on for his usual 10 goals and 10 assists. There isn't much more to say. The dude is good.
Blanco and Polo will be on the wings, and don’t be surprised if they swap places pretty fluidly. They’ll be relied on to divert some attacking pressure off of Valeri. Given Valeri’s incredible season, some overlooked Blanco’s contribution as a quality DP signing in 2017. Given what we know about foreign DP signings, there’s every reason to believe his output will only improve in 2018.
I have Polo on the left, but he actually played best in preseason as a narrow right midfielder. The fact is, Polo is still a bit of a mystery. A TAM signing with large shoes to fill, it looks like Savarese still hasn’t found his best position – he played on both wings, up top, and even a bit in the center of midfield in preseason. It’s clear he’s a different style player from Nagbe, so may take some time for him and the team to adapt to different type of player out wide. Still, his talent is apparent so don’t get worried if it takes a couple months for him to fully adapt to MLS.
You can expect Asprilla to be the first man off the bench. He’ll run at people, jump high, and provide lots of energy. Victor Arboleda is even faster than Asprilla, and will hope to parlay his outstanding preseason into more substitute appearances than the five he earned last year. Jack Barmby will also hope to find minutes, but may be on the outside looking in.
Armenteros has deservedly earned his Schillo Tschuma & Franck Songo’o Memorial Timbers’ Preseason MVP Award, but Adi is the proven product. His 42 goals and 44.3 xG since the 2015 season are both 4th in MLS, trailing only Bradley Wright-Phillips, David Villa, and Sebastian Giovinco. Not bad. The team made due without him last season, but if the Timbers want to return to MLS Cup they’ll need Adi to return to form. He’s made no secret of his desire to eventually move to a bigger league, but until then he’s earned the starting striker role.
Still, Armenteros looks like he may be the one of the best TAM signings in MLS this offseason. He’s proven himself in the Eredivie and has landed on his feet in Portland, so there’s every reason to expect he’ll contribute on day one, maybe even as a starter. Jeremy Ebobisse became a fan-favorite in only 370 minutes last year, but was very raw. He'll be starting striker for T2 and play in the Open Cup.
Portland begins the season with five difficult mostly cross-country away games, so if they revert to form and find themselves at the bottom of the table in April, don’t count them out. An easier back-end of the schedule could set them up nicely for another late push towards the playoffs.
Most teams in MLS have improved this offseason, the Timbers included. In 2017 they looked like an MLS Cup contender before a rash of injuries, and there’s reason to believe this team can get there again. If they struggle out of the gate and can’t recover, have a rash of injuries, or their veterans begin to show their age, Portland could easily see themselves end the season below the red line. But if Savarese proves he can coach at this level, the team’s veteran core stays healthy, and the new additions acclimate to MLS quickly, then this team has the talent to repeat as Western Conference champions and make another run to MLS Cup.