Kicking into action
Tumultuous. That is the best way to describe 2019 for the Portland Timbers, a season that started with 12 road games and ended in disappointment and uncertainty on multiple fronts.
Now, after an offseason highlighted by the retention of club hero Diego Valeri and the addition of three new attackers and a central defender, the Timbers kick off their 10th MLS season on Sunday, March 1, at home against Minnesota United. Here are some notable Timbers storylines as the season begins:
• Where will the attack rank among MLS teams?
Portland's offseason signings weren't as flashy as others around the league — that's never been the approach of the Timbers. But the club put a premium on ramping up the production after last season devolved into a hopeful shower of crosses from the wings that were mostly ineffective.
Portland, on paper, should be one of the better attacking teams. Sebastian Blanco turns 32 in March and is one of the most versatile and underappreciated attackers in MLS. Valeri is past his prime, which impacts his ability to play box to box. But he is still among the elite when it comes to delivering a final pass and taking free kicks and will still be prioritized by opponents game-planning against Portland.
The impact of offseason acquisitions Yimmi Chara, Felipe Mora and Jeroslaw Niezgoda are key, though difficult to predict. Chara, 28, joins older brother Diego on a designated player contract. A speedy winger, Yimmi Chara lined up on the right side during preseason.
The Chilean international Mora, 26, comes to Portland from Mexico's top league. Mora scored two preseason goals, but both he and Chara were still learning their teammates and the artificial turf at Providence Park in two games there. The speedy 6-1 Niezgoda, 24, hasn't played yet but has been training after a Jan. 24 heart ablation.
The Timbers are significantly deeper up top with attackers who have a track record, and if Jeremy Ebobisse — who this week signed a contract extension with the Timbers — takes another step in his development this season, the biggest challenge for the coaching staff might be keeping each attacker sharp and happy.
• Will the defending be good enough?
It wasn't in the final two preseason games, when the Timbers gave up seven goals. And a half-dozen of the goals scored against the Timbers in their three home preseason games were on runs to the back post that went unnoticed or unguarded.
Portland coach Giovanni Savarese promised after Saturday's 3-1 loss to New England that he would fix those problems. Goalkeeper Steve Clark echoed those comments, while understandably not discussing the specific errors he's seeing.
The center back combination of Larrys Mabiala and newcomer Dario Zuparic should improve into a strong one with time together. Savarese said he got unusually positive response to Portland signing the 27-year-old Croatian.
"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," the coach said.
Bill Tuiloma (sidelined until April) and Julio Cascante are entering their third full season in Portland and should be capable backup central defenders.
The bigger question is the outside back spots. There isn't much competition for right back Jorge Moreira, though this week's signing of preseason trialist Chris Duvall adds needed veteran depth. Moreira is stronger attacking than defending. At left back, Jorge Villafana was inconsistent last season and could be pushed by Gresham native Marco Farfan.
• Can Savarese finally get the Timbers playing proactive, possession-emphasizing soccer?
This is the million-dollar question. Soccer requires elite stamina and concentration to be really good. A team anxious to press in the attacking third can be difficult on opponents, but that approach requires all 11 players to work in tandem to deny space and cut off escape routes. It also requires forwards and outside backs to cover a lot of ground.
The Timbers created their best chances off of such pressure in preseason. But defenders and midfielders got caught too far up field and were unable or unwilling to make the needed recovery run. It could take time to get it right. But will Savarese stick with it or make needed concessions to plug defensive shortcomings?
• Will playing with his brother keep Diego Chara young?
That's a silly question. The only player still around from Portland's 2011 debut MLS season, the feisty Colombian midfielder who turns 34 in April seems not to have lost a step. That's important, because the Timbers in recent years almost never win without Diego Chara in the lineup (a 4-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy last July was the club's first league win in four years without Chara in the lineup).
Chara is the great trouble-eraser, allowing teammates to sometimes gamble on the attack. I sometimes wonder, though, if teammates take his work for granted instead of sprinting into position to defend. It's a good bet Diego and Yimmi Chara won't take for granted the chance to be teammates for the first time in a decade.
• Which players will most improve?
Aside from the newcomers, a key offseason move was acquiring Paraguayan midfielder Cristhian Paredes. The 21-year-old was on loan to Portland the previous two seasons, but his rights were acquired in January, and the Timbers see him as a long-term contributor. Diego Chara said Paredes is more mature and a strong partner for him in central midfield.
Just 21 entering his fourth season, Farfan (whose 2019 season was cut short by injury) has removed sweets from his diet in an effort to become more of a contributor. Attackers Marvin Loria, Eryk Williamson and Tomas Conechny are all under 23, and midfielder Renzo Zambrano is 25. Even Dairon Asprilla, who turns 28 in May and is in his sixth season with the Timbers, is a wild card to become a consistent weapon.
Portland needs at least two or three of its developing players to contribute important minutes if 2020 is to be a special year.
• Will the schedule matter?
In Savarese's first two seasons, the Timbers opened on the road. They played their first five away from Providence Park in 2018 and their first 12 away last season. In 2020, Portland plays six of its first 10 at home, including the first two. That puts more significance on hitting the ground running, especially with the first two home games against Western Conference foes Minnesota United and expansion Nashville.
• Will Portland miss Zarek Valentin?
The community and fan base will. Valentin isn't an elite defender. But he is a versatile one, a terrific competitor, and a positive voice on the field and in the locker room. Those intangibles and his ability to play anywhere along the back line will be missed.
If signed, Duvall — who has played in 102 MLS games (92 starts) — would give the Timbers cover behind Moreira at right back — at least until Tuiloma is healthy.
• Those other trophies.
The Timbers are one of eight MLS teams in the second Leagues Cup tournament: a 16-team, single-elimination tournament featuring eight teams from Mexico's Liga MX and the top four teams in each MLS conference that did not qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League.
Owner Merritt Paulson promised on Twitter that the Timbers are all-in and will play a first-rate lineup when they play host to a first-round match on July 21 or 22 against a Liga MX opponent to be determined. ... The Timbers were a home draw with Seattle away from claiming the Cascadia Cup last season. Alas, the Sounders took that trophy, then rolled all the way to their second MLS Cup title. The Timbers home games come early in 2020, with Vancouver visiting on April 25 and Seattle on May 17. ... Portland will enter the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in the round of 32, scheduled for May 19-20. The Timbers reached the semifinals of the national club championship last season, but have not had favorable draws over the years.
Will 2020 be the year their luck changes?
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