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ON SOCCER: Playoffs ahead, Portland proves to be a resilient team in season of unique challenges

PMG PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - The most valuable Timbers player, Diego Chara's constant presence in midfield was vital to Portland placing near the top of the Western Conference despite key injuries.Despite all of the strangeness, 2020 has been a productive year for the Portland Timbers — surprisingly so when you consider the significant impact of injuries.

Sure, with more secure defending late in games, Portland could have added a Supporters Shield to the MLS is Back Tournament title. But the frustration of late-game letdowns aside, the very fact that MLS put together a season is worth celebrating.

The playoffs, which start next week, will be a sprint to the MLS Cup final. The Timbers, who landed third in the West, will play host to FC Dallas in the first knockout round, which will take place Nov. 22. In addition to injured players, Portland will be without forward Felipe Mora (Chile) and midfielder Andy Polo (Peru) for that match because of international duty, so the health of Jeremy Ebobisse, who missed the final four regular-season games with a concussion, will be key.

Before the focus turns to that challenge, here are some positive developments that stood out during this most irregular regular season:

• Overcoming challenges — When Sebastian Blanco crumpled to the CenturyLink Field turf with a torn ACL on Sept. 6, it was reasonable to expect the Timbers' title shot went down with him. Blanco was the MVP of the MLS is Back Tournament and a candidate for the regular-season MVP award. But Portland went 8-3-4 after Blanco's injury and was within reach of first place in the West.

Even without its best attacking player, Portland finished second in MLS with 46 goals in the regular season. The Timbers did it by committee. Portland had 14 players score goals in the regular season. Diego Valeri and Jeremy Ebobisse scored eight times and Felipe Mora and Jaroslaw Niezgoda seven.

Taking a wider view, the Timbers managed COVID-19 protocols to play 27 games, including the MLS is Back Tournament, which ties Orlando City for the most in the league. That should not be overlooked in a year that included three months without matches.

"We finished all our games, as we intended to," Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said after Sunday's 1-1 draw at Los Angeles FC. "And that is because of the discipline of the players, and that is another reason why I'm so proud of them."

• Chara, Chara, Chara — In my media ballot for the MLS awards, I listed Diego Chara as my second choice for MVP and, obviously, on my Best XI. There is no way he wins it, of course. A defensive midfielder with one goal and six assists (a career high) isn't going to ever win a stats-based honor. But show me a player who is more valuable to his team than the 34-year-old Chara.

Chara is still making heroic recovery runs. His soccer brain certainly isn't slowing down and neither is his stamina. Even during the most compact parts of the schedule, Chara was the one player who was always in the lineup.

• The rejuvenation of Diego Valeri — A year ago, there was real uncertainty about Valeri's future with the Timbers. This season, not only was he with the club, but he continues at age 34 to be among the most skilled players in MLS.

His eight goals, seven assists and chances created led the Timbers. More surprising, Valeri played in 22 of Portland's 23 regular-season matches, starting 18 of them. When he did come off the bench, he was a game-changer.

Instead of lessening his role, Valeri saw more responsibility. He proved reliable defending opposing set pieces and cleared his share of opponent corner kicks from the 18-yard box.

• Impactful additions — Gavin Wilkinson, Ned Grabavoy and Savarese deserve credit for building a roster with the depth, character and versatility to manage 2020.

Jaroslaw Niezgoda didn't become a consistent starter, but prior to tearing his ACL Nov. 1, the Polish striker was part of a highly successful three-man rotation at striker with seven goals and one assist.

Yimmi Chara has emerged as one of the most exciting wide players in MLS. Diego's younger brother took some time to get his footing in MLS — a transition slowed by injury — but has become the difference-maker the team needed following the season-ending knee injury to Blanco. On Oct. 28, Chara was instrumental in all five goals, tying a MLS record with four assists and drawing the penalty kick for the other goal. On Nov. 1, his volley was the only goal in a win over Vancouver.

PMG PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Felipe Mora (9) was one of several newcomers who helped the Timbers finish second in MLS in regular-season goals with 46 in 23 matches.But the roster building is about much more than big-ticket acquisitions. Forward Felipe Mora (seven goals, two assists) has finished opportunities, played well in combinations and proven to be a strong hold-up forward. Entering the season I figured Dario Zuparic would be the most important newcomer. Whether Zuparic was the most significant acquisition can be debated. His value shouldn't be. Despite a few late-game mistakes, Zuparic has been the ironman Portland needed in central defense. Zuparic played the most minutes in central defense (more than 1,600 over 19 regular-season games) and was called upon more often than he might have been if Julio Cascante had stayed healthy.

And don't forget Pablo Bonilla. Originally signed to T2, the Venezuelan right back who turns 21 in December was promoted to the Timbers after Jorge Moreia's loan expired.

• Player development — Headlining the growth within this roster is Eryk Williamson, who has formed a formidable partnership with Diego Chara in midfield. Savarese and his staff knew the talent was there, but the 23-year-old blossomed this season. After playing only 253 minutes in 2019, Williamson made the most of the opportunity to step into a starting role this season, playing 18 games (three goals, five assists) and providing a player who can work out of pressure.

Other clear examples of player development include Jeremy Ebobisse's growth into a consistent scorer (eight goals, two assists in 18 games) over the last two seasons, Marco Farfan's learning to play right back, Bonilla's confidence and Andy Polo's improving ability to impact games in multiple ways.

I put Savarese as my second choice behind Orlando City's Oscar Pareja as the MLS coach of the year. Pareja will likely win it and Philadelphia's Jim Curtin deserves consideration. But Savarese beat them both at the MLS is Back Tournament, guided his club through COVID-19 and navigated the loss of his best player.


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