By MIKE DONOVAN
All Caleb Porter did in his first season as a professional head coach was earn Coach of the Year honors, while completely turning around the Portland Timbers, turning them into an attractive, creative team that was both visually appealing and successful on the field. He also led his club to heights that were rarely attained since the club’s founding in 1975.
The question now is what can Porter and the Timbers do for an encore?
Unlike the previous offseason, which saw a massive overhaul, in the weeks and months following their Western Conference Finals loss to Real Salt Lake, Portland focused on a few areas that needed shoring up.
With 2013 MLS all-star Rodney Wallace having to undergo offseason surgery to repair a torn ACL, the club was able to bring in Steve Zakuani, who played for Porter at the University of Akron.
Porter and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson then returned from a scouting trip in Argentina with the services of two key players that are expected to step into the starting lineup from day one. Centerback Norberto Paparatto brings a tall, sturdy presence at the back, while Gaston Fernandez is a versatile attacking player who is expected to pair with Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe to give the Timbers three creative attacking players.
Last year was a revelation in the Rose City and it seems like the 2014 Timbers might be able to do something that has never been done before by the club- Win either the U.S. Open Cup or its league’s postseason.
Here is a closer look at the 2014 Portland Timbers:
PORTLAND TIMBERS SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: 14-5-15, 57 points (First in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Gaston Fernandez, Norberto Paparatto, Steve Zakuani, Jorge Villafana, Andrew Weber, Schillo Tshuma
KEY LOSSES: David Horst, Ryan Johnson, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Sal Zizzo, Milos Kocic, Mikael Silvestre, Brad Ring, Jose Valencia (loaned to Club Olimpo)
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Norberto Paparatto. The Timbers brought the Argentine centerback in to be a presence in the back, especially on set pieces.
PRESSURE IS ON: Maximiliano Urruti. Acquired in August from Toronto FC, Urruti scored once in five matches for Portland last season. But with the offseason departure of Ryan Johnson, the 23-year-old Argentine has now been given the keys to the No. 9 position for the Timbers. In his limited action last season, Urruti’s high-pressure led to numerous giveaways by opponents and directly led to Portland goals. But can he deliver the goals that a striker has to produce?
Expectations are sky-high this year for the Timbers and anything short of the postseason will be deemed a failure in the Rose City for both the club and its army of fans. In addition to the playoffs, Portland wants to add to its almost-bare trophy case.
Porter has instilled in his team that even with a long season that every game matters. The Timbers lost just five times in the 34 regular season games in 2013, four fewer than the next club. But how does regular season success translate to winning meaningful matches?
“Coach is all about the process, he’s always thinking about the next practice, the next game,” Nagbe said. “For us, we just look at every game, one at a time, so if we take care of that, the trophies will fall into place.”
Nagbe will be part of a four-prong system of starting attacking players alongside Valeri, Fernandez, and Urruti. Urruti will play the No. 9 role, while the other three will rotate through various attacking positions based on opponents and tactical matchups that Porter thinks will work best.
“We do want to see some rotation because all three of those guys have the ability to impact the game,” Porter said, when describing the roles of Nagbe, Fernandez, and Valeri. “Those three players are very good players. We want to put them in spots and put them together, so that all three of them are effective.”
Behind the attack, lurk the combination of Diego Chara and Will Johnson. Johnson, the Timbers captain, is coming off a career year that saw him score nine goals paired with five assists, while also providing timely tackles and leadership on the field. Chara, meanwhile, is an energizing defensive midfielder, who has a penchant for goal-saving tackles and can cover for defenders when they are out-of-position.
In just one season, Chara and Johnson were able to develop an understanding and their relationship should only grow in their second year together. The Timbers also have the luxury of having Ben Zemanski backing up Chara and Johnson for when either player is out. The former Akron Zip made 25 appearances for Portland last season and provided stability when he came onto the field.
Despite allowing the second fewest goals in the league last season, the Timbers brought in Paparatto to pair with returning starter Pa Modou Kah. Portland traded Andrew Jean-Baptiste to Chivas USA (22 starts last season) and didn’t bring back David Horst or Mikael Silvestre, who dealt with injuries last season. Porter is hoping Paparatto will help shore up set-piece defending, an area that the club struggled with at times last season. The Timbers seem set at the fullback positions with Jack Jewsbury, who seemed to improve as last season wore on, and Michael Harrington, who recently participated in the U.S. National team’s January training camp.
Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts is coming off a MLS Goalkeeper of the Year campaign and the Jamaican International will hope to repeat last season’s form. With Milos Kocic retiring, the Timbers brought in Andrew Weber to back up Ricketts.
In addition to Zemanski, the Timbers believe they have the depth and bench which will help them with the additional games they hope to play this season. In addition to the U.S. Open Cup and potentially the playoffs, Portland is in the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time. Steve Zakuani (who did not play in the preseason due to injury), Frederic Piquionne, Kalif Alhassan, and Schillo Tshuma give the Timbers attacking options off the bench.
The expectations have never been higher in Portland. And if the club is able to prevent giving away cheap set-pieces and Urruti is able to be the striker that Porter wants to be, this season might be the best in the 39-year history of the Timbers franchise.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP