Eight Timbers story lines to watch
1. How great can No. 8 be?
We found out last season, when Diego Valeri scored 21 goals along with 11 assists and was a landslide choice as the MLS MVP. Expecting similar numbers this season is silly. Valeri will turn 32 on May 1, so his best season might well be last season. Still, the sensational Argentine should be one of the best attacking midfielders in the league, and it will be fun to watch how new coach Giovanni Savarese deploys him.
2. How will Savarese put his stamp on the Timbers?
He says he didn't approach this preseason any differently than he did when he was guiding the New York Cosmos to three North American Soccer League titles. He knows MLS, having played in the league in its formative years and followed it as a commentator for ESPN. Tactically, he is known to shift formations during games to find what works — something he did effectively in the last two preseason wins. A forward as a player, he wants his attacking players to have freedom to create. His "every game is a final" philosophy should play well with the Timbers Army.
3. How quickly will new acquisitions have an impact?
More often than not, it takes players time to adjust to the rigors and physical style of MLS, but Portland will count on 2018 contributions from at least a few of their new additions. Forward Samuel Armenteros made a strong case to start with his play in the last two games of preseason. Center back Julio Cascante had a strong preseason at a position where Liam Ridgewell has missed significant time over the last two seasons. Peruvian winger Andy Polo was signed as a potential starter. The others, including talented Paraguayan 19-year-old midfielder Cristhian Paredes, look like depth players this season and impact players in the near future.
4. Will Portland miss Darlington Nagbe?
The obvious answer is: Yes. No. 6 never put up the offensive numbers many expected, but his ability on the ball is rare. Nagbe was a big reason the Timbers could be scary in transition. And his ability to keep the ball in tight quarters made him a prime outlet when defenders were under pressure. He figures to thrive in Atlanta, where he won't be expected to score but will create space for the team's dynamic attacking players. Replacing Nagbe with a more offensive-minded winger should keep Portland among the higher-scoring teams in MLS.
5. Can Sebastian Blanco follow a solid first season (8 goals, 8 assists) with more consistent production, the kind teams need from their Designated Players?
The feisty Argentine seemed to grow more comfortable as the 2017 season progressed. A breakout season from Blanco, who turns 30 this month, would go a long way toward the Timbers remaining in the upper echelon of the Western Conference. Reasons to be optimistic include Blanco's relationship with Valeri, Blanco's desire to move around the field and the creativity that Savarese seeks in attacking players.
6. Will changes to the training staff result in fewer games lost to injury?
Injuries are unavoidable in MLS. How quickly a player recovers, however, can make a difference. In the wake of lengthy recovery/re-injury issues for Ridgewell and Fanendo Adi last season, the team hired Jon MacGregor as head trainer. Previously head trainer for Vancouver and for Columbus in MLS, MacGregor has a staff of two other trainers and two physical therapists.
7. Can Marco Farfan establish himself as a regular at left back, becoming the club's first Homegrown player to contribute?
Given the hamstring injury to Vytas in the final preseason match, Farfan seems a good bet to begin the season as the starter. If he can continue his steady improvement as a one-on-one defender, his ability to get forward and deliver quality crosses mean the most promising player to come out of the Timbers' youth system has a chance to take ownership of the starting left-back job .
8. Will another young player emerge as a MLS-level player?
Besides the new acquisitions, it would be nice to see a young player from within the Timbers organization become a first-team contributor. The top candidates appear to be Bill Tulioma, Victor Arboleda, Jack Barmby and goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh. New Zealander Tulioma had a solid preseason at central defender. Colombian Arboleda had an eye-opening game against a team of Red Bulls reserves, setting up two goals and scoring another. England's Barmby played 145 minutes in official preseason matches in Valeri's attacking midfield position. Native Californian McIntosh, after a big season with T2, should be a regular with that club again, as long as Jake Gleeson and Jeff Attinella are healthy. As for second-year forward Jeremy Ebobisse, the strong preseason for Armenteros might make first-team minutes tough to earn.