Timbers expect to push for trophy again
A decade into their MLS membership, the Portland Timbers are an established upper-tier club in the league.
Not elite, perhaps, though with one MLS Cup championship, two championship match appearances and last season's MLS is Back tournament title, the Timbers have established themselves as a club that expects to be pushing for trophies annually.
The 11th season will be no different, beginning on April 6 when Portland visits Honduras for the first of two matches against CD Marathon in the first round of the Concacaf Champions League competition.
Portland qualified for the CCL by winning the MLS is Back event. It's the third time the club has qualified for the regional competition, though Portland has not yet advanced beyond the first round.
The CCL matches with Marathon — the second leg is in Portland on April 13 (one day shy of the 10th anniversary of Portland's first MLS home game) — force the team to be sharp from the first kick of 2021. That's where limited roster turnover since a disappointing loss to FC Dallas on penalty kicks ended 2020 could help.
The offseason moves happened in the defense, where outside backs Jorge Villafana and Marco Farfan were traded to the Los Angeles teams and reserve central defender Julio Cascante to Austin FC. At outside back, Portland added 24-year-old Argentine youth international Claudio Bravo and 27-year-old Mexico City native Josecarlos Van Rankin. On April 2, they announced the signing of 26-year-old left back/midfielder Ismalia "Ish" Jome, who played with Minnesota United and most recently in the USL with the Austin Bold.
Exactly how the newcomers fit remains to be seen, especially since we have not seen any of the team's preseason games or training sessions.
The club remains in the market for another central defender to provide depth behind starters Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zuparic, whose partnership should be stronger in Zuparic's second MLS season.
Re-signing Mabiala was one of the offseason priorities for Gavin Wilkinson. The club's president of soccer also accomplished other significant moves: completing the purchase of 27-year-old Chilean striker Felipe Mora, who had seven goals and two assists in 2020 while on loan from Mexico's Pumas UNAM; and signing Eryk Williamson to an extension after the young midfielder's breakout 2020 season.
In his fourth year, coach Giovanni Savarese believes he has the pieces and depth to play a more proactive style of soccer than the lethal counter-attacking game that has mostly marked the team's successes under Savarese.
More possession might help cure the one glaring problem for the club in 2020: giving up late goals and late leads.
A trend that cost Portland a legitimate shot at winning the Supporters' Shield with the best record in MLS was the team's undoing in the playoff loss to FC Dallas, which scored the tying goal in stoppage time then won a nine-round tiebreaker.
A factor, certainly, was the rule change allowing teams to make five substitutions instead of three, something soccer's governing body extended through the end of 2021 because of the pandemic. Teams able to throw fresh attackers on late in games caused problems for the Timbers throughout 2020.
Portland's attack is awaiting the return of designated players Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda. Blanco is ahead of schedule in his return from the knee injury that ended his MVP-caliber 2020 season in September. Blanco, in fact, is traveling to Honduras with the team for the CCL opener.
Forward Jeremy Ebobisse is sidelined by a recent hamstring injury. Savarese said April 2 that it should be a short-term absence.
Niezgoda's return is pegged for mid-June.
Depth will be tested early with the CCL matches coming just in front of the April 18 MLS opener on the road against Vancouver.
Williamson was the Timbers' breakout player in 2020. Will there be a similar breakout player in 2021? Given the Timbers have established starters at every position, and multiple options at many, it's hard to peg a young player who might thrive. If they earn the playing time, Andy Polo, Marvin Loria, Christian Paredes or, heck, even Dairon Asprilla (whose contract recently was extended) are candidates. In fact, with both Ebobisse and Niezgoda sidelined, Asprilla could be a key attacking option during the CCL matches against Marathon.
Roster updates: On April 2, the Timbers announced they have signed left back/midfielder Ish Jome and midfielder Jorge Gonzalez to one-year contracts with a club option for a second year. Gonzalez, 22, had eight goals and one assist in 10 games for T2 in 2020. He will be loaned to Louisville of the USL Championship this season.
Schedule notes: Now at 27 teams, MLS shifted to a conference-focused schedule. Portland will play two Eastern Conference teams, visiting Philadelphia and hosting Inter Miami. The Timbers will play eight Western Conference teams three times and the other four twice. … Visiting Portland twice will be Los Angeles FC, Real Salt Lake, San Jose and Seattle. The Timbers will play twice at expansion Austin FC, Houston, the LA Galaxy and Vancouver.
• Fans will be allowed, at 25% capacity, to begin the season at Providence Park. The club is reaching out to season-ticket holders for the first group of matches and does not anticipate tickets being available to the general public until further notice.
(as of April 2)
Goalkeepers: Steve Clark, Jeff Attinella, Aljaz Ivacic, Hunter Sulte.
Defenders: Claudio Bravo, Larrys Mabiala, Josecarlos Van Rankin, Dario Zuparic, Pablo Bonilla, Ismailia "Ish" Jome, Zac McGraw, Bill Tuiloma.
Midfielders: Sebastian Blanco, Diego Chara, Diego Valeri, Yimmi Chara, Eryk Williamson, Dairon Asprilla, Marvin Loria, Blake Bodily, Cristhian Paredes, Andy Polo, Renzo Zambrano.
Forwards: Jeremy Ebobisse, Felipe Mora, Jaroslaw Niezgoda.
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