Inside MLS: Can Portland replicate their 2013 success?
Last year in a nutshell: This possession-oriented side developed quickly under the guidance of new coach Caleb Porter and marched all the way to the Western Conference final before exiting the postseason.
(as of March 3)
Incoming: GK: Andrew Weber (Phoenix FC); DF: Bryan Gallego (Akron), Norberto Paparatto (Tigre/Argentina), Taylor Peay (Washington), Jorge Villafaña (Chivas USA); MF: George Fochive (UConn), Aaron Long (California), Schillo Tshmua (Maryland), Steve Zakuani (Seattle); FW: Gastón Fernández (Estudiantes/Argentina)
Outgoing: GK: Milos Kocic (retired); DF: David Horst (Houston), Andrew Jean-Baptiste (Chivas USA), Ryan Miller (unattached), Mikaël Silvestre (unattached), Dylan Tucker-Gangnes (unattached); MF: Brad Ring (Indy Eleven), Sal Zizzo (Sporting Kansas City); FW: Ryan Johnson (Henan Jianye/China), Brent Richards (unattached), Sebastián Rincón (Tigre/Argentina), José Valencia (Club Olimpo/Argentina)
Key Player: Every functioning 4-3-3 system needs a schemer like Diego Valeri to really make it sing. The clever Argentine sidestepped the usual adjustment period upon arrival and took the league by storm during his first campaign with the Timbers. His assured work on the ball, his instinctive movements and his superlative ability to create and round off sequences places him among the top players in the league. He must reach those heights again in 2014 to ensure the Timbers do not drop off from their newly established standards.
Strengths: Timbers boss Caleb Porter has constructed a unit capable of maintaining possession and pulling apart the opposition on the break and from extended spells on the ball. Donovan Ricketts offers a steady pair of hands in support of a developing back four. Norberto Paparatto's arrival should further reinforce a miserly group already bolstered by Pa Modou Kah's arrival in midseason. The midfield trio of Diego Chara, Will Johnson and Valeri offers the perfect blend of industry and quality. Chara and Johnson connect the play with diligent running and smart passes, while Valeri picks apart the opposition. Darlington Nagbe improved his consistency under former college coach Porter and marshaled his enviable gifts to the benefit for the team. His technical ability always presents opportunities to change the game. Gastón Fernández – a clever second forward capable of featuring through the middle or out wide, fostering frequent interchanges among the front four and providing cover if Valeri is unavailable – offers the sort of tidiness required in the final third, while few teams can rely on the likes of Frédéric Piquionne in a part-time capacity. Attacking depth is a real strength with Kalif Alhassan in reserve and Rodney Wallace and Steve Zakuani on the mend.
Weaknesses: The flexibility within the attacking berths comes at the expense of fielding a prototypical number nine. Maximiliano Urruti will shoulder some of the burden with Ryan Johnson now in China, but this group will rely on its collective strength to threaten opposing defenses. Whether the concept will reap dividends in the postseason remains an open question. Right back remains a potential trouble spot with veteran Jack Jewsbury and young Jamaican international Alvas Powell as the primary choices in that department. Both players can fill the role if selected, but teams will test that area frequently. Midfield depth behind Chara and Will Johnson is a genuine issue with Ben Zemanski the only established alternative.
PROSPECTS FOR 2014
● Can the Timbers avoid second-season syndrome?: Portland took the league by storm a year ago with a new coach at the helm and a revamped style of play. Suffice it to say the opposition will not allow the Timbers to catch them unaware this time. The demands and the expectations will increase. Porter prepared his team for the toil ahead by reinforcing intelligently in central defense and up front, but his players must still rise to challenge accordingly.
● Will the defense hold firm again?: Ricketts and the defense did their fair share last year by holding opponents to just 33 goals in 34 matches. The earnest work in midfield reduces the amount of strain heaped on the back four, but the defenders must still accomplish their tasks accordingly. Concentration and shape are the key tenets required to ensure the sterling defensive record remains in place.
● Is the committee strong enough when it counts?: Five players – including the departed Ryan Johnson – scored seven or more goals for the Timbers last season. None of them topped Valeri's 10-goal haul. Diversity works during the regular season (see: Timbers' 15-game unbeaten run stretching from March to July), but it sometimes falters at the sharp end of the playoffs. Will the experience against Real Salt Lake prove instructive or does it hint at a potential issue once the postseason arrives yet again?
Best case scenario: Supporters' Shield winners Portland claim MLS Cup at Providence Park. It is a scenario firmly on the table if Valeri reproduces his 2013 form and his teammates continue to thrive in possession.
Worst case scenario: Other teams learn a bit too much from Real Salt Lake (Timbers' record against RSL in 2013, including playoffs: 0-3-2) and find ways to frustrate the Timbers as this season progresses. Portland makes the playoffs as expected, but the journey ends before the ultimate triumph is secured.
2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS
MARCH 4: Portland Timbers – Real Salt Lake