'Quality' players replacing those lost from MLS title team

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter, celebrating after the 2015 MLS Cup final victory over Columbus, is counting on some new players to keep his club in championship contention.If he could have kept them all, he would have.

But Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter, along with the team’s front office, was faced with a handful of tough decisions in the immediate aftermath of their MLS Cup championship just more than a month ago.

MLS salary cap rules and the mere fact that the Timbers were blessed with an extremely deep roster for the memorable run to their first major trophy were going to make changes inevitable for their title defense 2016 season; players would inevitably want raises and more playing time.

And so a mere 24 hours after lifting the MLS Cup after their 2-1 win Dec. 6 over the Columbus Crew at Mapfre Stadium, the Timbers began announcing the sobering news.

The contract options of winger Rodney Wallace, forward Maximiliano Urruti and defender Norberto Paparatto, all important depth contributors to the team last season, were declined on Dec. 7.

A few days later, Jorge Villafana, who emerged as one of the league’s best left backs after being acquired as a backup ahead of the 2014 season, was sold to Mexican club Santos Laguna.

And then right before Christmas, veteran midfielder Will Johnson, Portland’s team captain since his arrival in 2013 and perhaps the biggest symbol of the team’s turnaround upon Porter’s arrival that season, was traded to Toronto FC.

“If we could have kept everybody we probably would have pretty much the same team rolling into next year, with a few additions because you do always want to get better,” Porter told media on a conference call last week ahead of Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft in Baltimore. “But with the cap and the league structure, and you see it all the time, that wasn’t able to happen.”

While it may be tough for fans to say goodbye to a number of major contributors they became used to seeing over recent seasons, there is some consolation. There will be a bunch of new faces to get to know when the Timbers kick off 2016 training camp next week, all of whom, Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson believe, make up for most of their offseason losses.

Portland picked up Chris Klute, a former US youth international, in a trade with Columbus to make up for Villafana’s departure. The Timbers also acquired Montreal Impact defender Zarek Valentin, another US youth international who played his college ball under Porter at the University of Akron, for more backline depth.

Another trade with Columbus, this one for forward Jack McInerney, another player who has a connection with Porter from their time with the US U-23 national team, filled the hole at backup forward left by Urruti.

And the free agent singing of Ned Grabavoy filled not only Johnson’s midfield position – which became more of a depth piece with a late-season change to a 4-3-3 formation that required only one holding midfielder – but also his veteran presence in the locker room.

Portland are also close to signing veteran Jamaican international defender Jermaine Taylor, according to general manager Gavin Wilkinson, whose rights were acquired in the Re-Entry Draft after he was released by the Houston Dynamo. And they’re on the lookout for a winger to replace Wallace, Porter said.

“Every single signing and every player that was lost, I believe and so does Caleb, that we’ve been able to replace them with quality players within the league,” Wilkinson said.

That’s not to say the losses won’t be felt.

Urruti scored 10 goals last season and another three last year, including one of the biggest in Timbers’ history, an equalizer late in extra time of Portland’s thrilling Knockout Round playoff victory over Sporting Kansas City. He was picked up by FC Dallas and will presumably be given a chance at a featured role.

“We did not want to lose Maxi, ultimately he was a great player for us and he played a big role, but he wanted an increased role and he wanted to maintain his salary,” Porter said.

Villafana went to a deep-pocketed Liga MX team in the country where he spent his formative years and still has family, and the Timbers received a reported $1 million transfer fee.

“He had to strike with the iron was hot, and so did we,” Porter said.

Wallace has been with the Timbers since their inaugural 2011 MLS season and scored 16 regular-season goals in his five seasons with the team and two during their championship run, including what would prove to be the game-winning tally in MLS Cup. Paparatto made 17 regular-season appearances in two seasons with the Timbers and started their Western Conference Championship clinching game against FC Dallas.

The Timbers extended offers to both Wallace and Paparatto, Wilkinson said, but both are likely to explore opportunities overseas.

Johnson was a two-time MLS All-Star in his three seasons in Portland after he became one of Porter’s first signings following a successful five seasons Real Salt Lake. He recorded career highs in goals (nine) and assists (five) in 2013 and amassed 17 goals and eight assists while with the Timbers.

But Porter’s transformative formation shift that required just one defensive midfielder, usually Diego Chara or Jack Jewsbury over the season’s final two months, made Johnson’s presence on the team a luxury. With Toronto, where he was born, Johnson will have a chance to play a larger role.

“He wanted an increased role and wanted to maintain his salary,” Porter said, noting that all the key departures left on good terms.

And all of their replacements have similar attributes.

Grabavoy is a 12-year veteran who, like Johnson, plays mostly as a central midfielder who can play up the field. He scored five goals and recorded five assists in Real Salt Lake’s 2013 season that saw them advance to the MLS Cup and beat the Timbers in the Western Conference Championship. He played last season with expansion side New York City FC.

“I think we’re getting Ned at a really good time,” Porter said. “He’s coming off a year in New York that didn’t go the way he wanted it to go. … Ned two years ago maybe had the best year of his career at RSL.”

Valentin is a versatile defender, Porter said, who can play at either fullback position or at center back in a pinch, who is technically sound much like Villafana. Klute is a more athletic, box-to-box outside back.

“We get a really good mix with those two players,” Porter said.

And McInerney, Porter said, is a lot like Urruti in that he uses movement to get into the right spaces for goal-scoring opportunities. And at just 23 years old, McInerney already has six MLS seasons under his belt with 38 goals for the Philadelphia Union, Montreal Impact and Columbus Crew SC.

Taylor is an athletic center back with extensive international experience with the Jamaica national team.

All four players also have experience playing in the CONCACAF Champions League, the continental club tournament that the Timbers will participate in for the second time, earning a berth with their MLS Cup title.

“We needed to make sure we have a team with depth, we have now Champions League to manage, so the nice thing is we’ve been able to keep the majority of our starting core players, but like everybody knows and we’ve talked about we lost some key depth pieces, and those pieces are very, very important,” Porter said. “But we’re really excited and feel very good about where we’re at in replacing those pieces with quality depth and with players that fit our team, the way we play.”

And while the attention may be on Portland’s key losses, the reality is that the key pieces to their championship squad remain in tact. In fact, Villafana is the only full-time starter they lost.

Returning are attacking midfielders Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, who is currently in his second US national team camp, striker Fanendo Adi and veteran center backs Liam Ridgewell, who took over Johnson’s captaincy last seasons, and Nat Borchers. Wingers Dairon Asprilla, acquired last offseason, and Lucas Melano, signed to a Designated Player deal last summer, will also likely play larger roles.

“We [won MLS Cup] with a team, and a team isn’t just 11 guys, it’s 20, and we showed that through the season leading into the end of the year, but we really showed it at the most important time,” Porter said. “We had to rotate our squad, we had suspensions, we had international call-ups that we had to manage, we had injuries. And a big reason we won it is we had a team, a team with depth.”

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