By JOEY SAMUEL
The Portland Timbers are back for year two in Major League Soccer, and they are hoping a new star striker, along with another year of experience, can put them over the hump and into the playoffs.
Portland came close to making the playoffs in their debut season last year, finishing just four points shy of the tenth and final spot. They fared much better than fellow expansion team Vancouver, who finished last in the Western Conference. But Portland's sum of 40 goals on the year was only better than three other teams in the league.
They remedied that situation during the offseason by signing Scottish striker Kris Boyd to a Designated Player contract. The Timbers now hope that Boyd's goal-scoring pedigree from years of playing at a top level in Europe can give them the spark they need. That, combined with a defense that added a few pieces as well, could be enough to put the Timbers into the playoffs in their second year.
"I expected to make the playoffs last year," head coach John Spencer said. "You can't look back, not in this game. You can't look back over your shoulder, you've got to keep striding forward and hoping to improve."
Here is a closer look at the Portland Timbers ahead of the 2012 MLS season:
PORTLAND TIMBERS SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 11-14-9, 42 points (sixth in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Kris Boyd, D Andrew Jean-Baptiste, D Hanyer Mosquera, M Charles Renken, M Franck Songo'o
KEY DEPARTURES: F Kenny Cooper, D Kevin Goldthwaite, M Peter Lowry, M Ryan Pore, F Spencer Thompson
Without question, the Portland Timbers' biggest problem throughout their inaugural MLS campaign was goal-scoring. Many of Portland's wins came with 1-0 scorelines, while their losses featured many more goals. They ended up scoring only 40 goals on the year (34 games played), and they allowed 48.
"There were a lot of question marks going into last year, as there always are with expansion teams," said captain Jack Jewsbury. "There weren't a whole lot of expectations; it's one of those things where if you can make a push towards the playoffs people are already happy with what you've done."
In year two, however, expectations will be much tougher for Portland, who can look to the Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia Union for examples as to where expansion teams can be after two seasons.
While the addition of Boyd would certainly seem as a step in the right direction to solve the goal-scoring issue, Portland also dealt away its leading goalscorer, Kenny Cooper, to the New York Red Bulls. Cooper scored eight goals throughout the season after returning from a two-year spell in Europe. But Portland felt he was surplus to requirements, and they shipped him away in exchange for a 2013 first-round SuperDraft pick and allocation money. Boyd will now fill his role.
"The guy's talent for scoring goals is undeniable," Spencer said of Boyd. "It's up to us to get him into the system. He will play in the penalty box, that's where he earns his money, that's where he scores his goals. With certain players we had last year, we had too many guys working in the wider areas. We had no goal threat through the middle and (Boyd) will certainly give us that goal threat."
So it remains to be seen how the addition of Boyd and the subtraction of Cooper will impact the Timbers' ability to score goals. Portland had also lined up the signing of another Designated Player, Jose Adolfo Valencia of Colombia. But he failed his physical, causing him to be placed on the disabled list.
His transfer fee and DP contract won't be on the books for 2012, but it's a huge loss for the Timbers. Valencia was a perfect example of the new "young DP" rule that MLS instituted for this year, but the son of former MetroStars striker Adolfo "El Tren" Valencia has been ruled out for six to 12 months.
Defense wasn't exactly a strong area for Portland either throughout the 2011 season. They gave up 48 goals on the year, more than any Western Conference team besides Vancouver. They responded during the offseason by drafting defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste of UConn with the eighth overall pick in this year's SuperDraft.
In addition, they signed Colombian defender Hanyer Mosquera, who Portland hopes can continue the strong pedigree of Colombian defenders in MLS like Jamison Olave, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, and Carlos Valdes.
Midfield, meanwhile, shouldn't be much of a problem for Portland. They have depth in numbers as players like Jack Jewsbury, Sal Zizzo, James Marcelin, Kalif Alhassan, Diego Chara, and Eric Alexander can be plugged in where Spencer needs them. Jewsbury will continue as the engine that keeps Portland going, and his set-piece abilities were the only reason that the Timbers didn't score even less goals throughout the year.
"This year, we've added some players, and now it's not a matter of staying around in the mix for the playoffs," said Jewsbury. "It's a matter of making the playoffs and making a push towards the title."
If Portland can avoid any more major injuries (they already started with Valencia), and Boyd can contribute to the point where he's in the running for the Golden Boot, then they will have a solid chance to make the playoffs. It won't be easy, especially with one more team entering the league. But they were only four points shy this year, and their additions may be enough to get them over the hump.