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.