All is bright in Timbers-ville
Preseason media events are occasions for optimism. That was the case on Wednesday when the Timbers held their first media event of their 10th MLS campaign. A few observations:
• The positive energy exuded by president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson, coach Giovanni Savarese and the four players who addressed the media stems in part from the extended offseason. There were 93 days between the Timbers' loss at Real Salt Lake in the playoffs and the official kickoff of their 2020 training camp.
Savarese said he's never had so much time off.
"It did me well to be so hungry to come back," Savarese said. "I see the same thing from the players, as well."
So the Timbers appear much more refreshed than a year ago, when the start of training camp came only five weeks after their MLS Cup loss to Atlanta United.
• Wilkinson sounded optimistic that Portland's effort to acquire Polish striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda will get over the finish line, perhaps as soon as Jan. 29. The 24-year-old Niezgoda has had nice success recently in Poland's top league, but as usual Portland's pickup is an under-the-radar move compared with some of the splashier additions around MLS.
I have no idea how the 6-1 striker will translate to MLS. But the Timbers really need this acquisition to work, given their inability to find a consistent striker not named Fanendo Adi.
• In addition to Niezgoda, the Timbers intend to add two more attacking players and a right back to their roster, though no timetable for those moves was given.
• The Diego Valeri contract saga that shadowed the Timbers' run to the playoffs last season is a distant memory. Valeri, Wilkinson and Savarese all said the priority was always to keep Valeri in Portland and that once both player and club understood each other the solution was easy.
Wilkinson said Valeri "did what was right for himself and also did what was right for the club" by agreeing to a contract below the Designated Player threshole.
Valeri said the love he and his family felt from Portlanders once the contract situation became public reinforced his love for the club and the city.
"My daughter, this place is her home. And my wife is in love with the community, the city and the club," Valeri said. "As soon as (club CEO) Merritt (Paulson) expressed to me the wish of me staying in the club, it was easier than I thought to solve."
• Asked if Valeri's role might change — he turns 34 on May 4 — Savarese said he and Valeri will talk throughout the season to determine if he needs what NBA stars call load management. The coach added that Valeri arrived for preseason "lean, strong and ready."
• With Valeri no longer a Designated Player, the Timbers were able to double their Charas, with Colombian national team attacker Yimmi joining older brother Diego in Portland. The brothers are thrilled to be together again a decade after the Timbers plucked Diego Chara from Deportiva Tolima, where the brothers were teammates in Colombia's first division.
Diego Chara made it clear that while the brothers have similar builds, they have very different games. Noting that he rarely scores as a primarily defensive midfielder, Diego Chara said Yimmi "is so different from me" and "is going to bring something different in attack. He's a quick player."
Diego Chara has four kids. Yimmi has a son and a daughter. Diego said he is thrilled to have family in town for the first time.
Savarese said Yimmi Chara will be a versatile and adaptable attacker whose familiarity with Portland should quicken his transition to the club and MLS.
I'm looking forward to the Chara tenacity doubled, and to the smiles and the dance that Yimmi promised the brothers will work on for when either of them scores a goal.
• The most significant offseason acquisition might turn out to be 27-year-old Croatian central defender Dario Zuparic. Savarese said that when he and Wilkinson met Zuparic in Croatia, they immediately knew he was a player who "can help you inside the field and outside the field."
Savarese received a lot of positive feedback about the acquisition of Zuparic.
"I don't know if I have ever received as many text messages from friends in soccer saying, 'You guys brought in a very good player,'" Savarese said.
• As interesting as roster building is, one under-appreciated factor that could help the Timbers in 2020 is a reasonable schedule. In Savarese's first season, Portland opened with five consecutive road games. Last year, it was a dozen road games to start the 34-game odyssey.
This year, the Timbers' first two games are at home March 1 and 8.
That doesn't guarantee a fast start, but it does give the team more time to train without travel challenges.
Perhaps more significant, in his third season Savarese will have a better opportunity to imprint his philosophy on the club.
Valeri is looking forward to that.
"I think Gio has in mind to work a lot on the tactical side. In the first preseason he couldn't do that because he needed to get to know the players. In the second preseason, after the short offseason we didn't push a lot in the preseason.
"Having a normal offseason, this preseason is going to be very good for us to set up the way we're going to play."
• Savarese said Aljaz Ivacic, the 26-year-old Slovenian goalkeeper who appeared in 12 games for Timbers 2 last season, is pushing Steve Clark in early training sessions. Jeff Attinella is working his way back from the shoulder surgery that ended his 2019 season.
• Attacker Blake Bodily, who signed a homegrown player agreement with the Timbers, figures to play for T2 this season. Bodily was the Pac-12 Player of the Year in the fall as a junior at Washington, where he scored 12 goals and had six assists in 19 games. Named an All-American by College Soccer News, Bodily was a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy as college soccer's top player.
An Eagle, Idaho native, Bodily, 22, joined the Timbers' youth academy in 2014. As part of that program, he has made 35 appearances with T2, scoring four times.
• Midfielder Andres Flores is expected to miss four to six weeks after surgery to repair a medial meniscus tear in his left knee suffered while with the El Salvador national team.
• After training in Portland/Beaverton for one week, the Timbers will spend two weeks in Costa Rica, during which they will scrimmage against C.D. Saprissa Feb. 1, Municipal Grecia Feb. 5 and C.S. Herediano on Feb. 9.
They return to Portland Feb. 10 and play preseason matches at Providence Park on Feb. 16 (Vancouver), Feb. 19 (Minnesota United) and Feb. 22 (New England) ahead of their March 1 season opener at home against Minnesota United.
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