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ON SOCCER/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Stability can serve team well in new season, however ...

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Diego Valeri remains motivated to be a major producer for the Portland Timbers, whose lineup is nearly intact from last year's MLS championship game squad.Stability is boring.

The Portland Timbers start their ninth MLS season with much the same roster as took them to the 2018 final.

The offseason hush made the offseason ho-hum for fans anxious to welcome the next budding star and might explain some predictions of a fifth-place or lower finish in the Western Conference.

But here are good reasons why the Timbers are more likely to be in the top four than the bottom half of the West:

• Ten of the 11 who started against Atlanta United on Dec. 8 are expected to be in the lineup on Saturday when the Timbers kick off at Colorado.The only change will be in central defense, where Julio Cascante figures to line up to the left of Larrys Mabiala.

That stability, and the players' familiarity with returning coach Giovanni Savarese, should help the Timbers weather the 12 road games they'll face at the start of the season.

• Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Diego Chara are three of the best players in MLS. Period. And each is in his early 30s and motivated to win now.

Valeri, who turns 33 on May 1, was the MLS MVP in 2017. He has hit double digits in goals in five of his six seasons in Portland and double digits in assists four times. While his 10 goals and 12 assists last season were a drop from his MVP year, Valeri had four goals and two assists in the playoffs. He says he is focused on enjoying the present and hopes to play many more years.

Blanco, who turns 31 on March 15, emerged last season as one of the more creative attacking players in the league. More settled in his second season in Portland, Blanco posted 10 goals and 11 assists, then scored two of the biggest goals of the playoffs in decisive games at Seattle and Sporting Kansas City. In addition to his skill, Blanco's competitive spirit provides personality and energy on the field.

Valeri and Blanco go back to their youth days together in Argentina and form one of the most dangerous attacking tandems in the league.

Chara, who turns 33 on April 5, is the Timbers' most indispensable player. The disruptive midfielder enters his ninth season with the Timbers — he's the last remaining link to the 2011 expansion team. The Timbers have not won a regular-season or playoff game without Chara on the field since July 5, 2015. His willingness to cover ground and make difficult tackles frustrates opponents while freeing up teammates to focus on attacking.

• Depth is (almost) everywhere. With the exception of striker — where the Timbers are shopping for an expensive addition — Savarese has multiple players to choose from at each position, fostering the competition for playing time that should push everyone toward their peak.

• Improved threats beyond Blanco and Valeri.

Andy Polo, who scored only one goal in his first season with the Timbers, looked more comfortable and effective this preseason. The speedy Peruvian doesn't have the distraction of the World Cup and could be ready to make the second-season jump many foreign players do in MLS.

Jeremy Ebobisse, 22, earned the starting forward job down the stretch last season. He was the top scorer in the preseason Mini Mobile Sun Cup tournament at Tucson, Arizona with three goals. The 6-foot Ebobisse needs to get stronger but has proven adequate as an outlet for teammates playing the ball up the field. Until Portland lands its new forward, who will be the third highly paid designated player, Ebobisse is the guy up front. If things go well, he won't give way easily even after a veteran forward is added.

Lucas Melano turns 26 on Friday. Still not the impact player Portland hoped he would be when he was acquired in the middle of 2015, the Argentine has shown glimpses that he might become more than just a player with speed that scares defenses.

• The schedule.

Surprise! This is probably a reason the Timbers are not considered a contender for the top spot in the West. Playing the first 12 games away from home is a challenge, and the memory of last season's slow start lingers. But playing 17 of the final 22 at home should be a boon. D.C. United had a similar scenario last season and — after adding Wayne Rooney — climbed from last place into the playoffs. Portland's home stretch will come when teams start to deal with fatigue, so if the Timbers can be within sight of seventh place through 12 games they will be in great shape.

Challenges aplenty

• Savarese. In his first season as an MLS coach, Savarese guided the Timbers through some rough patches, showed an ability to effectively adjust his approach, and had them at their best for the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if Portland becomes more proactive and implements more high pressure now that Savarese and his players understand one another better.

A successful second season for Savarese is far from guaranteed, though. Here are a few potential stumbling blocks for the 2019 Timbers:

• Life without Liam Ridgewell at the back is the biggest question about Portland. Bigger than how the team will handle playing its first 12 games on the road. Bigger than who the new high-priced forward will be and when he might arrive. Bigger than who among the young second-line players might emerge as regular contributors.

Given Ridgewell's age, recent injuries, salary and a relationship with Savarese that seemed strained, it made sense for the Englishman and the club to part ways. Ridgewell, who turns 35 in July, is now with Hull City in England's second division.

But replacing Ridgewell's presence as a left-footed central defender won't be easy. His confidence and strong voice were as significant as his ability to play the ball with his feet, and the Timbers won a lot more with Ridgewell in the lineup than it did without him during his 4 1/2 seasons in Portland. Ridgewell was key to keeping the team organized and on-point defensively.

Claude Dielna, a veteran French center back who fell out of favor after signing a big contract with New England, was acquired to help fill the void. Based on Savarese's lineup for the final preseason game, it appears 25-year-old Julio Cascante will get first crack at the job. Bill Tuiloma, who turns 24 on March 27 and played well as Ridgewell's primary backup down the stretch last season, has been dealing with a minor injury.

• A lack of proven backups in midfield. With Chara and David Guzman, the Timbers have a strong pair anchoring the midfield in front of the back line. Last season, Lawrence Olum provided experienced cover there. Olum is gone, so the depth at the holding midfield spot will be provided by Andres Flores, Cristhian Paredes, Renzo Zambrano and Eryk Williamson. Paredes, Zambrano and Williamson are promising young players. But Paredes fell out of the rotation last season after Guzman returned from the World Cup, and Zambrano and Williamson are untested at the MLS level.

• Age. As Valeri and Chara approach their mid-30s, neither looks to be slowing down significantly. But, as we saw with Ridgewell, recovering from injury takes longer for older players. The club has talked about the bright potential in Marvin Loria, Tomas Conechny, Paredes and Zambrano. But how would they perform if called upon for significant minutes?

• A tougher conference (in possible order of finish, excluding Portland).

LAFC pushed for the top as an expansion team last season. Bob Bradley's attack remains formidable, and L.A.'s downtown team has the elite talent to follow Atlanta and win it all in Year 2 after getting bounced in their first playoff match.

The Sounders no longer have Osvaldo Alonso (now with Minnesota) or Clint Dempsey (retired), But with a top forward in Raul Ruidiaz in Seattle for a full season and Jordan Morris back from last season's knee injury, the Sounders are not likely to endure the slow starts of the past two seasons and should contend for first place.

Sporting Kansas City figures to be motivated after the Timbers won last season's conference championship series. Peter Vermes has one of the deepest rosters in the league and, even without a big-time striker, always has Sporting in contention.

The L.A. Galaxy have missed the playoffs two years in a row, but led by Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a full season will again be among the top scoring teams in the league. Improve on defense under new coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto and the Galaxy will at least be a playoff team.

The Vancouver Whitecaps have done an almost total overhaul, and new coach Marc Dos Santos, like Savarese, has a track record of championship-level success in lower leagues.

Houston still has several of the most dangerous attackers in the league, led by Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas. The Dynamo focused on defense with the addition of two defenders and a defensive midfielder.

A non-factor in its first two seasons in MLS, Minnesota United hopes the opening of snazzy Alianz Field and the acquisition of defense-first MLS veterans Ossie Alonso and Ike Opara can make the Loons relevant.

After a recent pattern of fast starts and fades, FC Dallas turns to academy director Luchi Gonzalez to coach a team that continues to build around homegrown talent. 

Real Salt Lake added Liberian striker Sam Johnson as a Designated Player to a strong attacking core, but will age finally catch up with Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman?

Colorado scored only 36 goals last season, but the arrival of Diego Rubio from SKC, Kei Kamara from Vancouver and Benny Feilhaber from LAFC should ramp up the Rapids' attack.

San Jose was the worst team in the league last season and has largely the same roster. The Quakes do still have Chris Wondolowski, one goal from tying Landon Donovan's MLS record for career goals. Perhaps new coach Matias Almeyda, who coached Chivas of Guadalajara to five trophies in three years, can change the trajectory. 

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@pauldanzer


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