Can Timbers contend for trophies in 2015?

The Portland Timbers are gearing up for the 2015 season, fresh off preseason training in Tucson, Arizona. Now the team is back in the Rose City readying for the Simple Invitational preseason tournament, starting with a February 22nd clash against Cascadian counterparts Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Timbers will also square off against the Chicago Fire and Norwegian side Stabaek before a March 7th season opener against Real Salt Lake at home.

As tournament hosts Portland will benefit from the energy of ever exuberant home supporters, the Timbers Army sure to warm up their voices to shake off the rust from their winter of discontent.

After a record-setting 2013 season that saw the club advance under then first year manager Caleb Porter to the Western Conference finals, Portland fans were disappointed to miss the playoffs after a sub-par start in 2014 left the the team languishing below the thin red line of playoff contention at year’s end.

Add to that crashing out of the CONCACAF Champions League in the final group stage game, a U.S. Open Cup exit at the feet of archrivals Seattle Sounders, and finishing last in the Cascadia Cup standings, 2014 was not a year to remember for the boys in green.

While owner Merritt Paulson points to a strong finish and MLS era club records broken in goals scored (61) and away wins (7), neither were enough to salvage a campaign that conceded 52 goals and recorded only 5 wins at Providence Park.

Sugarcoating is too soft a word for the front office assessment.

Five points from the first 24 on offer in 2014 is a paltry return, a repeat of which would severely diminish postseason hopes with the West adding perennial contenders Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo to an already extremely competitive conference.

The rehabilitation from injury of captain Will Johnson and Designated Player and All Star Diego Valeri are expected to keep both out of regular action for the first month or so, signs pointing to a major void in the middle of the park.

Key to filling this hole is Darlington Nagbe, the fifth year midfielder now called upon to transition from potential superstar to a steady and consistent presence after experiencing a setback in scoring production last year, only netting a solitary goal in the team’s final match.

Nagbe’s seven assists last year showed he still possesses the vision and distribution to be dangerous, but a lack of goals makes him an easier target to mark for the opposition. If Diego Chara sits above Nagbe in the scoring charts for a second straight season, Portland is in for a long and trying season.

Rodney Wallace and Gaston Fernandez are two other players who will be crucial in midfield, the versatility of both giving Porter options as he tries to strike a balance on both sides of the ball.

Wallace was instrumental in the team’s late season resurgence after arriving late following recovery from a knee injury the prior offseason, five goals and an assist enough to make visiting defenders think twice when the Costa Rican is on or near the ball.

Fernandez notched seven goals and two assists in his first season with the Timbers, and the Argentine looks comfortable playing in Porter’s system as he can slot into several positions across the center of the park or higher in the attack.

Ben Zemanski and Jack Jewsbury offer veteran depth at both defensive midfield and outside back positions, while top draft pick Nic Besler is impressing as a holding midfielder, displaying the pedigree that has made his brother Matt of SKC a stalwart of the US Mens’ National Team.

Besler’s inclusion in the first team may be premature with the likes of Michael Nanchoff and George Fochive presumably ahead of him, but he’s one to keep tabs on for the future and should see ample minutes with Timbers 2, the club’s USL side.

Omar Cummings, an eight year veteran of MLS with 43 goals between stints at Colorado Rapids and Houston, scored a goal as a trialist for Portland to equalize against the Dynamo in Arizona last weekend, the Jamaican making a case for a contract with the Timbers.

Newcomer Dairon Asprilla from Colombia brings pace and creativity on the wing, and depending on how fast he settles in he could be an effective complement to Fanendo Adi or Maxi Urruti up top. If Asprilla can come anywhere near the production of these two strikers, he will be an unqualified success.

Another South American joins the club in defender Jeanderson, whether he can displace current incumbents Jorge Villafana or Alvas Powell in a wingback role depends on the tactics of the day for Porter, the Brazilian showing the capability to link up with the attack during limited action in the Desert Friendlies.

It’s unclear if Jeanderson will be an effective addition, but for an area in need of the most improvement it is difficult to see the club doing worse out wide.

In the middle of defense is where a step up was most critical, and the arrival of centerback Nat Borchers brings in a much needed veteran to pair with Designated Player Liam Ridgewell, who is fresh off a six match loan to Wigan Athletic in England.

The return of Ridgewell unscathed is welcome news for supporters, and the promise of the player starting the season fully match fit is another positive compared to joining a disjointed backline in the middle of 2014.

Borchers brings a wealth of experience from his days at RSL and previously in the Norwegian league, including MLS Cup championship credentials. Whether these two can form an early partnership complete with chemistry is vital to Portland’s playoff hopes.

Ties to Norway could prove helpful as the defense integrates a new starting goalkeeper in Adam Kwarasey, who joins the club from Norwegian side Strømsgodset.

Born in Oslo, Kwarasey opted to play for Ghana and was netminder for their opening match of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a 2-1 defeat to the United States. Yours truly was on hand to witness Kwarasey’s performance in Natal last summer, and while his misfortune was the USA’s gain, he was not at fault for either goal and was hard done by to lose his place in the following match.

In spite of a cruel end to his World Cup, playing on such a grand stage is ample preparation to fill the size-able shoes of the departed Donovan Ricketts, the Jamaican now at Orlando City FC after the Timbers left him unprotected in the expansion draft.

While the the Portland roster did not undergo a complete overhaul, the changes throughout the league means Porter must make do with what he has at his disposal and hope that it is enough to challenge for trophies.

A couple of extra points could have been enough to squeak into the playoffs last year, but it’s unlikely to be near enough to earn a crack at winning the MLS Cup. Hopes of a first place regular season finish are even more far-fetched after ending last season 15 points below Supporters Shield holders Seattle.

A Cascadia Cup is always in contention no matter how bad a team is doing as derbies are an altogether different animal, although that didn’t help a Timbers team that struggled with consistency and suffered from too many self-inflicted wounds.

The ultimate dream of a treble is a monumental ask for any team, but it is a farcical one for a squad that proved incapable of winning three games on the trot in 2014.

The defensive woes that plagued Portland last year appear to be remedied on paper, if they are to be playoff contenders they must survive a grueling start to the 2015 campaign that includes matches against playoff teams in seven of the first eight outings.

Can the Timbers vie for supremacy in any competition this season? Certainly.

Will they? Only if they can get at least half the points available in the first two months, and no less than a point away to Vancouver and Seattle.

If Portland can come out with a fighting chance come May, they will be a team to be reckoned with the remainder of the year, reaping the rewards of valuable minutes for fringe players adding required depth for multiple competitions when Johnson and Valeri return.

Should the Timbers repeat the start of last year, it will be another year to be forgotten, no matter how positive a spin one tries to put on it.

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The Brazil Chronicles: The Finale

Copacabana beach from atop Sugarloaf Mountain.

Copacabana beach from atop Sugarloaf Mountain.

Read parts I, II, and III

Our whirlwind trip continued as we exited the flight from Natal shortly after sunrise, a taxi trip in morning traffic offering us a glimpse into the vast expanse of Rio de Janeiro as we made our way to our hotel nestled between the confluence of the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.

There was no time for rest as we dropped our bags at the front desk and walked the block to the oceanfront boardwalk, then strolled down to enjoy brunch as beach soccer and beach volleyball games entertained us.

Further up we came to the FIFA Fan Fest in Copacabana where thousands gathered to watch a cracking match between the Netherlands and Australia, then hurried back to our hotel to check in and catch the subway to see the last of our ticketed contests, Spain versus Chile in the world renowned Maracana.

This has to be the place. Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

This has to be the place. Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

While our concierge’s idea of transit time left something to be desired, we managed to avoid the chaos of Chilean supporters crashing through the media entrance and circumnavigated the stadium to find our seats prior to kickoff.

We found some gentleman holding our seats for us, and after some even gentler prodding they made way as we settled in just in time to see Chile make things worse for the defending World Cup champions with a superb team goal finished off by Eduardo Vargas.

Chile were dominant on the pitch and in the stands.

Chile were dominant on the pitch and in the stands.

The 75,000 plus capacity arena was awash in a sea of red, both countries fans bearing the same primary color red but to the neutral the majority of support was clearly in the South American side’s favor.

That fanatical fervor doubled just before the break when Chile capitalized on a poor free kick clearance by Iker Casillas, Charles Aranguiz pouncing on the loose ball with a delightful one touch toe punch finish to put Spain into deeper misery to compound their capitulation to Holland days earlier.

The dismissal of Spain was a surprise, but the class on the field came from a Chilean team that would later unfairly fall to hosts Brazil in the Round of Sixteen following a penalty shootout.

Perhaps one day.

Perhaps one day.

Field of Dreams.

Field of Dreams.

Before that came to pass, however, we enjoyed an ebullient evening with celebrating Chilenos eager to share their elation. Standing in the grand environs of the stadium long after the final whistle, we eventually made our way back home on a packed subway, meeting new friends along the way.

BrenaldoYDamininhoMaracana

A couple of twenty-something Chilean guys made these two intrepid travelers envious, their tales of road tripping across South America to attend the Copa Mundial harkening back to our younger days of driving from Portland to Panama.

We finished our night watching Croatia crush Cameroon 4-nil from a bar near our hotel, and after a day that began before dawn we retired to our room.

This way to the media center!

This way to the media center!

The next day was a rarity as rain and an overcast sky put a damper on any plans to lounge in the sun, so instead we sought out some sightseeing that led us to the media center at Forte do Copacabana, which turned out was only three blocks from our temporary home.

The media centers were always a welcome respite from the craziness and unpredictability of Brazilian life, not to mention the best wireless internet access. After a bit of hobnobbing with other journalists we pushed on and resumed our primary aim of watching football.

Reporting is hard.

Reporting is hard.

Think we can get in there?

Think we can get in there?

Impressed by the chipping skills of James Rodriguez in Colombia’s defeat of the Ivory Coast, the match of the day for us was Uruguay and England. On the advice of a friend living in Rio we made our way to the Mud Bug pub, a well known locale for viewing matches and apparently also for beautiful Brazilian and Colombian bartenders.

Missing out on seeing Luis Suarez as he sat out in the loss to Costa Rica we attended in Fortaleza, the now former Liverpool striker was electric as he punished the country of his one time employment with two scintillating goals either side of a fantastic finish from his old strike partner Daniel Sturridge.

The Three Lions bowed out as early as Spain, and remarkably Uruguay would go on to take down Italy as well, but not before Suarez ensconced his place in infamy with the bite seen round the world on the understandably apopleptic Giorgio Chiellini.

While the indelible image of fans posing with Suarez’s open-mouthed advertisement in Copacabana prompted adidas to take it down, we prefer to think of a simpler time when the Uruguayan was better known for his scoring panache than his odd predilection for human flesh.

We discussed the finer points of the sport with aficionados from numerous nations while we watched the night’s slate of matches, making new friends from Uruguay, Mexico, and Brazil in particular. Being our last night before flying home, we did our best to savor the moment and let the amazing experiences in this beautiful country sink in before crashing hard.

The Dude is a notorious photo bomber.

The Dude is a notorious photo bomber.

Waking up early the next morning we set out directly to Corcovado to see the Christ the Redeemer statue, the symbol of Rio and Brazil more than simply a Catholic icon as the mountaintop setting over two thousand feet above sea level is a view unlike any other in the world.

Rio from atop Corcovado.

Rio from atop Corcovado.

The proximity of the mountain is mere miles from the ocean, so to go from the beach to the clouds is a dizzying trip that induces vertigo when you look down the sheer cliff from the edge of the viewing platform.

Even for those with a fear of heights the trek is well worth the psychological discomfort, the reward unobstructed 360 degree vistas that include the Maracana, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and Sugarloaf Mountain.

T is for Timbers.

T is for Timbers.

Green is the color.

Green is the color.

After snapping the gratuitous Jesus Christ pose pictures, we headed for the next major landmark in Sugarloaf to take the cable car to the top of the seaside peak.

For these two boys from Oregon that grew up with the Goonies and the dominant image of Cannon Beach’s 235 foot Haystack Rock, while Sugarloaf was smaller than Corcovado at roughly 1,300 feet the height and views impressed in equal measure.

Stunning scenes from Sugarloaf.

Stunning scenes from Sugarloaf.

There are two cable cars that take you up to the top, the midway point of Morro da Urca putting you squarely inside a national park complete with helicopter trips and native monkeys like marmosets roaming free.

Marmoset mealtime.

Marmoset mealtime.

The views from the cable cars on both legs are majestic, and once you reach the summit of Pao de Acucar you can hike around the circumference on paved trails that provide unparalleled scenes of the tropical paradise that is Rio de Janeiro.

The scope and scale of both these viewpoints is hard to fathom, but seeing helicopters flying beneath you offers some perspective.

To offer more evidence of Rio’s credentials as one of the most visually captivating cities in the world, at least once in your life watch the arcing flight path of jets passing under El Cristo Redentor and then below and past Sugarloaf into Rio’s domestic airport on Guanabara Bay, truly a sight to behold.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro.

It was on that high of highs that we made our way halfway back down to lunch while watching the Ticos upset Italy and book Costa Rica’s passage out of the group stage. Always aiming to time our travel in between matches, we returned to our hotel to see France seal their own advancement with a 5-2 thrashing of the Swiss.

Even when I stepped out for some last minute shopping I could not miss a goal, every shop window and restaurant tuned into the World Cup allowing me to partake in the match while moving about town.

As that match ended so did our final moments in Brazil, and we sadly stepped into a cab waiting to take us to our flight. We caught the remainder of Ecuador’s win over Honduras before boarding the airport bus to our plane, and with that our adventure came to an end after one last delay to top off the fuel tanks.

After nearly a fortnight of crazy travel, little sleep, and incredibly good times, departure was bittersweet, but we’d do it again in a heartbeat given the opportunity.

Obrigado, Brazil!

Obrigado, Brazil!

After settling in back home to watch the rest of the tournament and ultimately see Brazil’s national team, the Selecao, fall so unfortunately from grace in a crushing semifinal defeat to eventual World Cup winners Germany, a twinge of pain is felt for a country that lives and breathes futebol.

For all the flaws exposed by protests and unfinished sections of stadiums, going to Brazil for the World Cup was a dream come true and Brazilians deserve immense credit for serving as excellent hosts and gracious caretakers of all the traveling fans.

Witnessing first hand the USA’s win over Ghana will always stand out as a highlight, but even more memorable is the warm acceptance of Americans by not only Brazilians but other nationalities as fellow brothers and sisters of the world’s game.

The United States may not be world beaters yet, but the intangible of belief means expectations continue to rise for a country that is now considered a regular in the latter rounds of the World Cup.

Personally I hope it’s only a matter of time before America achieves greater success at the international level, and that someday I can return to Brazil to reminisce while making new memories.

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The Brazil Chronicles: Part III

What do you get when you cross Cascadia and Brazil? Fun!

What do you get when you cross Cascadia and Brazil? Fun!

Read parts I, II, and the Finale

A lot can be said for a good night’s sleep, but not in this missive.

After a late night celebrating a monumental (and ultimately pivotal) victory for the United States, the next day was a blessedly sunny one with noticeably less Ghana clad supporters strolling along the beach boardwalk.

Presumably the uptick in new Brazilian jersey sightings was a sign of camouflage for the vanquished opponents of the Americans, and our countrymen were in a jubilant spirit as the festivities picked up where they left off the evening before.

A reunion with Dale was on the cards, as well as plans to meet up with my editor at soccerly, the illustrious Scotsman Steve Clare. Before those meetups could occur, a date with the Mother Ocean was on the cards.

For the equivalent of $15 a surfboard missing a fin was ours for an hour, and the pristine appearance of the perfectly undulating shore break did not disappoint. Four to six foot waves peeled along the beach, with easy drop-ins ending in rides providing a stoke to match the grins from the win the night before.

It was in that ebullient mood that Damin and I reconvened at the bar with Dale and friends, a slate of afternoon matches lined up with Brazil versus Mexico the match of the day as the festival of football continued in earnest.

The finest in American Outlaws beach cantina attire.

The finest in American Outlaws beach cantina attire.

While Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa stole the show with Gandalf-esque saves to prevent passage to would be Brazilian goals in a nil-nil draw, the most daunting challenge for us was how long we could stay on our feet (or in our chairs) before passing out to catch an early flight to Rio the next morning.

The arrival of Mr. Clare revived our flagging stamina, and apparently all that was needed was another round (or ten) to motivate us to resume our roles as man on the street reporters.

Steve, as is his wont, was accompanied by a bevy of Brazilian and American women, something his media pass must obviously have procured for him (in reality, local friend Isa and Cascadian friend Audrey did their best to keep the Scot from getting into too much trouble).

As the banter at the bar broke up we aimed for our hotel and were ever so close to achieving our goal at the strike of midnight, but then a game of beach soccer lured me in and encouraged Damin and Dale to buy more beers to enjoy the show.

Given that one of the participants was carrying a beer bottle, the odds of finding a contest better aligned with my skill and fitness levels at that given time were not going to improve.

While beach matches are seemingly ever present in Brazil, this one stood out for the transvestite DJ with a rolling stereo cart providing musical accompaniment to the match, not to mention the unorthodox 15-1-3-1 formation employed by both sides.

A game predominant in the attack was right up my alley, and with my first touch a nutmeg on a rare defender I was immediately accepted into the fold of Brazilians, Americans, Ghanaians, Japanese, Germans, Greeks, Mexicans, and a myriad of other nationalities enjoying a kickabout.

The Brazilians young and old were not surprisingly the most skilled and naturally gifted, but the inventiveness of the visitors was equally impressive, particularly considering the amount of alcohol consumption fueling the imaginative play.

At one point I surely did something entertaining or amusing to my compatriots as chants of ‘Brenaldo’ started to drift down to the playing area, bewildered looks from the other bystanders surely a sign that my reputation of possessing a proclivity for backheels had not preceded my arrival in country.

After an hour so the footy fun was eventually dashed when a sandy puddle caught my toe and firmly planted me into the shallow surf, and the realization that our departure to our ultimate destination was mere hours away finally dawned on us as we called it a night.

As we’d grown accustomed to by this point our slumber did not last nearly long enough, and the call from our cab driver roused us to action before sunrise as we again navigated the city streets in the early morning hours to depart.

The flight to Rio allowed for some much needed rest, and thankfully this time the pilot managed not to break any safety windows en route to the final stop on our travels.

Read parts I, II, and the Finale

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