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After early playoff exit, club looks to bolster defense, continues to develop depth

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The development of midfielder Eryk Williamson was one of the bright spots of 2020 for the Portland Timbers.The 2020 season ended painfully for the Portland Timbers.

Coach Giovanni Savarese was clear about that during a Dec. 3 end-of-season remote meeting with reporters. He also was clear that it is especially difficult to watch Seattle advance.

"It's been extremely difficult to watch Seattle still go forward in a year in which I thought we had the pulse of their team and the way we play (against the Sounders). We were looking forward to seeing them again in the playoff."

Instead, Savarese, Gavin Wilkinson and owner Merritt Paulson are looking forward to 2021.

Wilkinson, the president of soccer, said the team already has completed two trades that will be announced once the trade window opens Dec. 13.

According to a report from ESPN's Jeff Carlisle, one of the moves is sending Gresham native Marco Farfan to Los Angeles FC for $300,000 in allocation money. Carlilse reported that Farfan requested the trade.

Portland has been linked in reports to left back Claudio Bravo, a 23-year-old currently with Banfield in his native Argentina. Carlisle reported that deal is done, and that move would explain why Farfan — called this week into a U.S. senior national team camp for the first time — might want a new opportunity.

Wilkinson did not discuss specific trades. But he said the Timbers are focused on strengthening the wide areas defensively and adding a young central defender as a longer-term investment.

Another priority according to Wilkinson is striking a deal with Mexican club Pumas UNAM to bring Felipe Mora back to Portland after the Chilean striker had a successful 2020 while on loan.

Portland will part ways with midfielder Andres Flores and with right back Chris Duvall. Savarese called both great human beings.

Pending the trades to be announced, Timbers under contract for 2021 are: goalkeepers Steve Clark, Aljaz Ivacic, Jeff Attinella and Homegrown Player signing Hunter Suite; defenders Pablo Bonilla, Julio Cascante, Marco Farfan, Zac McGraw, Bill Tuiloma, Jorge Villafana and Dario Zuparic; midfielders Dairon Asprilla, Sebastian Blanco, Blake Bodily, Diego Chara, Yimmi Chara, Tomas Conechny, Marvin Loria, Cristhian Paredes, Andy Polo, Diego Valeri, Eryk Williamson and Renzo Zambrano; and forwards Jeremy Ebobisse and Jaroslaw Niezgoda.

The club picked up 2021 options on Williamson, Paredes, Asprilla, Cascante, Bodily, Ivacic, McGraw and Zambrano. It has made a bona fide offer to Farfan. Portland remains in discussions with central defender Larrys Mabiala, whose contract expires at the end of 2020.

Wilkinson said that Paulson and the ownership group are committed to funding needed roster moves despite the loss of revenue with fans not allowed to attend games at Providence Park.

"In some ways, we don't need a lot of funds," Wilkinson said.

Including Designated Players Blanco, Yimmi Chara and Niezgoda, the Timbers have a solid core under contract for 2021.

"What we are asking the ownership is allowing a set number (of dollars) to go into the youth player slot," Wilkinson said. "That's where we have to do our due diligence and make sure that the young central defender that we're bringing in is of the highest quality and is a player who will grow with this club for many years to come."

Until trades and contract option decisions are announced, predicting what the Timbers of 2021 will look like is impossible.

But the Timbers should be in position to contend for trophies — especially if they experience fewer injuries to key players.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jeremy Ebobisse's evolution as an attacker, and as a voice for racial equality in MLS and beyond, was one of the positive stories of 2020 for the Portland Timbers.Losing Blanco in the midst of an MVP-caliber season, Portland still scored the second most goals in regular-season play in 2020.

Defending errors countered the positive attacking, though. Portland was bad at closing out games, a shortcoming that the Timbers survived at the MLS is Back Tournament but that cost them a shot at the Supporters' Shield and a playoff win against FC Dallas.

Savarese pointed to himself as responsible for not finding a solution to the late-match struggles.

"We needed to be a little bit more clever in how we manage those (late-game) minutes," he said. "The maturity has to show."

The other area that Portland never consistently got right, according to Savarese, was defending corner kicks.

Year Three under Savarese was otherwise a step forward. Winning the MLS is Back Tournament earns Portland a spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League — dates still to be determined. And, Portland evolved into more than just a counter-attacking team, scoring goals in a variety of ways. Fourteen players scored goals.

"I think we grew in our style of play," Savarese said. "We wanted to be a team that could hold the ball more and hit you in more ways, and we accomplished that."

In terms of player development, the impact of Eryk Williamson (three goals, five assists) in midfield, the continued growth of Jeremy Ebobisse (eight goals, two assists) and the contribution of young outside back Pablo Bonilla stand out.

So does the impact that Yimmi Chara, Mora and Niezgoda each made during his first MLS season.

Aside from the MLS is Back Tournament title, perhaps the most satisfying aspect of 2020 for the Timbers was playing every scheduled game and never having a player test positive for COVID-19.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - In his third season, Giovanni Savarese led the Timbers to the MLS is Back tournament title and produced a mostly succesful 2020 desite injury and pandemic challenges.That reflects the positive culture within the club and the dedication of players, staff members and their families to stick to protocols.

Perhaps the best example of that is Diego Valeri. The 34-year-old was able to play regular minutes despite a compact schedule. Savarese said Valeri's commitment to being ready to play is an example other players will follow.

"Credit to him," Savarese said. "The discipline, the constant work, the way he took care of himself — he looked to recover very, very quickly (between games) many, many times."

Valeri's approach to a challenging season is one example of something learned through the trials caused by the pandemic, the forest fire smoke and other challenges unique to 2020.

Savarese listed the individual workouts players did during the shutdown and small-group training activities as the team ramped up as approaches that he learned from and that will continue to be implemented post-pandemic.

Off the field, the leadership by Ebobisse and Duvall and others had as voices for the new Black Players for Change coalition helped MLS focus on the impact of racial injustice in soccer and in society.

In the coming weeks, Wilkinson and Savarese will work to shape a 2021 Timbers roster that is stronger defensively and at least as deep as the 2020 version. In addition to adding talent, a successful offseason will maintain the culture of support and togetherness that allowed the club to navigate 2020.

"It was definitely a tough year. But in that tough year, all the injuries and things that we had to go through, the guys kept themselves very strong mentally, kept fighting," Savarese said. "We always looked at the positive side."

Losing a playoff game Portland should have won against FC Dallas to end what the Timbers believed could be a championship run was not positive. But the loss should motivate all involved come next season.

"We're hungrier. We can't wait for next year," Savarese said.

• Portland will not field a second team in 2021, a decision made in part because of financial pressure. The plan is for T2 to return for 2022, though what league it will play in remains to be decided. Wilkinson said he and his staff will use next year to find and add young players who can play for the planned 2022 return of T2. He said he is comfortable that the Timbers are in a good place in their cycle of roster development, and that a year without a second-division club won't have a negative long-term impact.


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