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ON SOCCER/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Thorns point to need for stronger starters

COURTESY PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - The Portland Timbers are looking for several new players to get them back into MLS championship contention, including help or depth at forward to go with forward Jeremy Ebobisse.It feels like a fitting final twist to the long, weird soccer year in Portland that the MLS championship game will be hosted on Sunday by the Timbers' biggest rival.

The year will rightly be celebrated for the expanded Providence Park. And with more than 4,000 new seats, the Timbers and Thorns both ranked among the top 10 North American clubs for attendance (Timbers fourth, 25,218 per game; Thorns 10th, 20,098).

By making the playoffs in the year after their MLS Cup appearance, the Timbers out-performed the 2014 and 2016 seasons, when they floundered after deep playoff runs. Ditto for the Thorns, who missed the playoffs in 2015, when the Women's World Cup impacted the roster.

So, 2019 was hardly all doom and gloom.

But the end results were disappointing.

And several disorienting events inside Providence Park will be the lasting 2019 memories: the Timbers going 318 minutes between home goals, the Thorns getting thumped 6-0 by North Carolina, and the silent protest aimed at MLS from the Timbers Army that got the league's attention but turned the biggest home match of the season into the strangest.

The Timbers and Thorns don't need to start from scratch looking ahead to 2020. But the aim is to upgrade both rosters with the addition of significant pieces.

The Timbers' troubles were many. While avoiding specifics, general manager Gavin Wilkinson and coach Giovanni Savarese said the challenges went beyond the schedule, Brian Fernandez's issues and the Diego Valeri contract flap.

The Thorns' demise is easier to explain. The intense demands of a World Cup caught up with their best players, and the constant comings and goings for international duty disrupted team chemistry.

If history is to be trusted, both clubs will have better results in 2020. Wilkinson is busy trying to do his part and last week's announcements of contract extensions for the Timbers' Sebastian Blanco and for the Thorns' Ellie Carpenter gave frustrated fans something to smile about.

But the months ahead could be as unsettling as the season just finished. Consider:

• Working within the roster rules of MLS always presents challenges. This offseason the Valeri negotiation and the status of Fernandez cloud that picture for Wilkinson. 

Owner Merritt Paulson, Wilkinson and Savarese all say they want Valeri to retire a Timber. But they won't sacrifice budget flexibility to make that happen.

I don't pretend to be an expert on MLS salary rules, but I understand that the Timbers will have trouble landing the four or five new players they desire if all three designated player slots are filled.

"What we don't want to do is fill three designated player slots and find ourselves in a marketplace that we can't afford to fit in the (new) winger within the cap that we have or the (new) forward within the cap that we have," Wilkinson said.

Stay tuned.

• Fernandez returned to Portland last week. The 24-year-old was still under the direction of the MLS Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, which he entered last month. The only comment from Wilkinson was that Fernandez is under contract for 2020.

The question, of course, remains how much faith the Timbers are willing to place in the talented, but troubled, Fernandez.

• Wilkinson's shopping list includes another forward, a right winger, a central defender and midfielder. The team is close to signing a young right back, too, though they hope to retain Jorge Moreira who provided needed width on the right side of the attack this season.

The need for added forward depth became painfully clear in the playoff loss at Real Salt Lake. When Jeremy Ebobisse had to leave with a sore hamstring, Savarese had no natural forwards to insert. Ebobisse wasn't able to return to training until late last week — the team continued working even after the playoff loss. He would have missed Portland's next playoff game.

Portland needs to find someone more dynamic than Andy Polo to be the first choice on the right wing.

The Timbers could use another seasoned central defender. They gave opportunities for Julio Cascante and Bill Tuiloma to play this season, and Tuiloma has a bright future. But the club missed the strong voice and competitive grit of the departed Liam Ridgewell.

Adding a box-to-box midfielder will help transition from the Diego Chara era — and perhaps extend the career of the indefatigable Chara by allowing him to rest more often.

• The shopping list, really, is the second phase of Wilkinson's to-do list. In addition to the Valeri saga, the priorities include the permanent acquisition of 21-year-old midfielder Cristhian Paredes, who had a solid second season in Portland on loan from Mexico's Club America. Portland also wants a multiple-year deal with 29-year-old Jorge Moreira, whose contract with the Timbers expires in six months.

• All of that roster maneuvering is complicated by external factors. The collective bargaining agreement between MLS and the MLS Players Association expires Jan. 31. With Inter Miami and Nashville SC entering MLS in 2020, there is plenty of incentive to avoid a work stoppage.

But how any new CBA might impact roster size and flexibility — including tools such as the Designated Player and Targeted Allocation Money that have raised the quality of foreign players in MLS — remains to be seen.

There is also the expansion draft on Nov. 19. Portland can protect 12 players in addition to Homegrown Players Marco Farfan, Eryk Williamson and Foster Langsdorf. 

• It will be informative to see who the Timbers protect, especially given the encouraging growth during 2019 seen from young players such as Marvin Loria, Renzo Zambrano, Paredes and Tuiloma.

"The development of these young players from last year to this year was incredible," Savarese said.

Marvin Loria's move from the lower tier of the roster to a player consistently in the 18 and pushing to start is the most dramatic example of that improvement.

"We didn't expect him to grow so quickly and to be so influential (this season)," Savarese said.

Tomas Conechny, on the other hand, wasn't quite ready to push for a regular spot.

"Tomas had more ups and downs," Savarese said. "But it's never a question of his talent or his quality. It's about other things that we need to continue to work with him on."

Midfielders Zambrano (nine starts) and Williamson (seven appearances, three starts) made their MLS debut this year.

Ebobisse, the only Timber to play in all 34 matches, turns 23 in February. Paredes turns 22 in May. Even Savarese sometimes forgets that Tuiloma is only 24.

Farfan is another young Timber whose stock was on the rise before a midseason knee injury. It's an indication of the club's faith in him that it plans to acquire a young right back but seem happy with Jorge Villafana and Farfan at left back.

Savarese said the commitment to developing players through T2 and its youth academy is significant.

"There's huge trust in our youth," Savarese said. "They're going to be very influential in the things we're going to do in the future."

• As for the Thorns' future, Wilkinson noted that losing 6-0 at home and failing to reach the National Women's Soccer League championship match are unacceptable outcomes for the marquee women's pro sports club in the world. Part of his planned remedy includes adding three to five starting caliber players to the roster.

The focus, Wilkinson said, is on improving the quality of foreign players on the roster.

While praising the depth that allowed the Thorns to thrive without their World Cup stars, Wilkinson said "the starting group needs to get better."

• Increased NWSL salaries and the introduction of allocation money similar to how MLS operates will give Wilkinson more to work with as he shops for talent.

The league is shifting away from being run by the U.S. Soccer Federation to being owner-operated, and the NWSL has announced the minimum player salary in 2020 will increase from $16,538 to $20,000. The maximum salary will increase to $50,000 from $46,200. Players no longer will be paid for additional work such as youth soccer camps.

Oh, and Sacramento is expected to become the 10th NWSL team in 2020.

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@pauldanzer


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