Timbers infused with new blood
Back on Nov. 5, after the Timbers' playoff hopes crashed in a heap of injuries, Caleb Porter spent time in his postgame news conference talking about the club's bright future.
Four months later, after perhaps the most seismic offseason in club history, predicting the Timbers' fate in 2018 is no easy task as they kick off their eighth MLS season on Sunday by visiting the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The club is moving into a new phase — and not only because Porter departed and Giovanni Savarese was hired as the third head coach in franchise MLS history.
The cranes at Providence Park this March feel like apt props to describe the 2018 Timbers. This is a club with a proven, if aging, core. It is also a club with exciting new additions.
But like the stadium expansion that is scheduled to be completed in time for next season, the on-field product might be a year or two away from its full potential.
That is not to say that the Timbers of 2018 won't be a playoff team. Given the returning nucleus, led by 2017 MLS Most Valuable Player Diego Valeri, expectations should be high for this team. Question is, with Valeri, Diego Chara and Liam Ridgewell a year older, can Portland remain among the leaders in an improved Western Conference?
In addressing needs — depth at forward, midfield, center back and wing — president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson focused on getting younger and more talented across the board.
Other than the coaching change, the biggest offseason news was the departure of Darlington Nagbe — a move that became possible (perhaps inevitable) when Porter departed. Nagbe recently told Goal.com he probably would still be in Portland if Porter — his college coach — was still running the Timbers. Replacing the club's first draft pick will be a big story line early in the season. While he didn't always produce the goals, Nagbe's role as a "get-out-of-jail" option who can dribble out of tight spots was a unique, sometimes underappreciated, skill. When Nagbe was at his best, it was difficult for opponents to dictate play.
Replacing Nagbe in the lineup will be a more true wing player and a more attack-focused man — be it Andy Polo or Dairon Asprilla.
At least at the outset, the rest of the starting XI should look familiar.
If Valeri, who turns 32 in May, maintains the form he showed last season, it will make Savarese's first season at the helm smoother. Valeri's 21 goals allowed the Timbers to rise to the top of the West despite the injury that cost Fanendo Adi the last three months of the 2017 season. Valeri became only the second player in 22 MLS seasons to have at least 20 goals with 10 assists in the same year.
"He's a fantastic player," Savarese says. "Everyone in Portland knows how much he cares about the organization, the way he goes about the games, his quality."
Based upon preseason lineups, Savarese's first-choice XI will include Larrys Mabiala and Ridgewell at center back, David Guzman and eventually Chara in front of them, Alvas Powell at right back, Sebastian Blanco on one wing and Adi at striker.
The hamstring injury suffered by left back Vytas in the final preseason game likely means an opportunity for Gresham native Marco Farfan to begin his second professional season in the starting lineup.
With Jeff Attinella also injured, Jake Gleeson begins his eighth season with the Timbers as the starting goalkeeper.
The position battle getting the most outside attention during preseason was the wing opposite Blanco. Polo, perhaps the most celebrated of Portland's offseason acquisitions, started there in the final preseason match and went 90 minutes. Dairon Asprilla and Victor Arboleda also had their preseason moments, with Arboleda delivering an eye-opening performance in a match against the New York Red Bulls' second team.
The offseason addition who made the loudest arrival was Swedish forward Samuel Armenteros. A veteran of 10 pro seasons in Europe, the 27-year-old had three goals and set up two in substitute appearances in the final two preseason matches. He showed quickness and a deft ability to find seams in the defense. That figures to keep Adi on his toes and give Savarese some intriguing options up front.
Several intriguing youngsters are among the offseason acquisitions.
Polo, a 23-year-old Peruvian, is expected to battle for the starting wing spot opposite Blanco and add speed on the flank.
Julio Cascante, 24, gives the Timbers another option at center back. The 6-2 Costa Rican figures to at least be the first option behind Ridgewell and Mabiala.
Cristhian Paredes, 19, brings size (6-0) and technical skills to the midfield and in the long term could be Chara's successor.
Players adjust to a new team, new league and new country at different speeds. Savarese says he likes the progress he's seen from the newest Timbers.
"I think they're adjusting really well," he says. "They're starting to understand that this league is based upon a lot of work, and you have to put the work in if you want to be competitive. It's not only about the quality, it's also about how determined you are to work and to keep up. I think they have understood that already in these matches that we've played."
An MLS roster is constantly in flux, and the Timbers probably aren't done making moves. Reports out of Honduras indicate the Timbers are acquiring speedy forward Darixon Vuelto, though it was unclear whether the 20-year-old was to sign a MLS contract or with Timbers 2 of the United Soccer League.
New blood on the field should provide Timbers fans fodder for debate, but the one new blood on the sideline will be in the spotlight. Savarese had great success both coaching and building the North American Soccer League's New York Cosmos.
Now the 46-year-old Venezuelan is charged with keeping the Timbers among the top contenders in a league exponentially better than it was when Porter was hired in 2013.
Having played in the MLS in its formative years and followed it as a commentator for ESPN and others, Savarese seems ready for the challenge. While it's foolish to read too much into preseason results, the way the Timbers responded in the second half of their final two games — executing a formation change in both games — is encouraging.
Savarese has said he wants a team that is proactive and also creative within the team structure. Savarese downplays the significance of shifting formations — though seeing options gives fans (and opposing coaches) new fodder.
"More than the adjustments, it was the attitude," Savarese says of the strong second-half performances that included rallying from a 2-0 second-half deficit to win Saturday's final tuneup match. "You can make tactics changes, but the most important part is the attitude."
A positive attitude will be imperative, because the Timbers open with five consecutive road games.
The first thing Savarese wants to establish is "to be a team that is never giving up, a team that is always going to step on the field and give the best of themselves. And that's what I expect from our first match."
In their first seven seasons, the Timbers have made the playoffs three times, twice finishing atop the conference, and won one MLS Cup championship. Expectations are understandably high in Portland — more lofty than those cranes rising above Providence Park.
The coaching change and influx of young talent only add to the anticipation of a 34-game marathon that presents travel, weather and injury challenges.
Watching Savarese and the young players navigate those challenge will, at the very least, make the 2018 season one of the most intriguing in Timbers history.