On Soccer: So close to a Cup, title window still open for Timbersâ€™ core
They came as close as possible to winning a championship without actually lifting the big trophy.
But, almost before the confetti hit the Providence Park turf on December 13 as New York City FC celebrated in front of an emptying stadium, the question was being asked: How close to a championship team are the Portland Timbers?
The quick answer should be: very. After everything Portland endured in 2021 — especially the injuries keeping top players Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda out for much of the season, and ending the season early for important midfielders Eryk Williamson and Andy Polo — to reach the brink of a championship was remarkable.
Coach Giovanni Savarese has gotten his team to the playoffs in each of his four seasons with the Timbers, twice reaching the final and winning that 2020 MLS is Back trophy — a track record that might be ignored nationally, but shouldn't be.
The longer answer is: it depends.
One of Portland's strengths at the end of this season was its experience. But, to turn around a phrase, with experience comes age.
Diego Chara might be playing like a 26 year old, but turns 36 in April. Larrys Mabiala is 34. Blanco, who as of last week was in negotiations to extend his stay in Portland, turns 34 in March. That trio have helped the Timbers reach two MLS Cup finals and win the MLS is Back tournament. They aren't yet done, but with age comes questions about durability.
Still, it would be premature to break up this roster. And, Portland scored a win of sorts when expansion side Charlotte FC did not select a Timber. Among those exposed to the draft, Polo and Pablo Bonilla are still young players with big upsides.
It's important given the brevity of this offseason that Portland's roster appears stable. No glaring needs, though adding depth at left back and central defense would help.
But with Felipe Mora (28), Dairon Asprilla (turns 30 in May), Yimmi Chara (turns 31 in April), Niezgoda (turns 27 in March), Marvin Loria (turns 25 in April), Polo (27), Cristhian Paredes (turns 24 in May) and (eventually) Williamson (turns 25 in June), the Timbers have a solid group of attackers/midfielders in their prime or about to enter it.
Then there is the exciting potential of young Colombian Santiago Moreno. He turns 22 in April and played with flair, but with a work ethic and maturity as a reserve after joining the club in August.
In the back, Dario Zuparic (turns 30 in May), Bill Tuiloma (turns 27 in March), Claudio Bravo (turns 25 in March) and Zac McGraw (turns 25 in June) are under contract.
In addition to Blanco, as of last week the team was in negotiations with goalkeepers Steve Clark and Aljaz Ivacic and defender Josecarlos Van Rankin.
That's not to say there won't be roster upgrades. The anticipated departure of Diego Valeri should free up some money for a team that needs to find its next dynamic playmaker.
The next match will come quickly. New England visits Providence Park on Feb. 26 to start 2022. The schedule, released last week, is highlighted by a Friday night home game against Seattle in August. For just the second time in MLS history, there won't be a MLS Cup final rematch since Portland and NYCFC are not slated to play in 2022. The 34-game regular season ends October 9, followed by playoffs that conclude Nov. 5 with the MLS Cup final.
Thorns update — The Portland Thorns selected forward Sydny Nasello, defender Gabby Provenzano and forward Natalie Beckman in Saturday's National Women's Soccer League Draft.
Nasello, taken 13th overall, had 11 goals and five assists as a junior this fall at South Florida.
Provanzano, taken with the 22nd pick, was the Big Ten Defender of the Year in 2021 as a senior at Rutgers.
Beckman, taken with the 48th pick, had five goals and 18 assists for Denver.
NWSL players report for six weeks of preseason on February 1. The 2022 season will again start with the NWSL Challenge Cup Tournament, which will feature six group-stage games for each team, followed by semifinals and a May 7 final. A 22-game regular season will follow, with each team playing the other 11 teams twice. Six teams will make the playoffs, which will take place in October.
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