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
Timbers win the new jersey competition. They look very nice. As an RSL fan, I may buy one.
If I were to pick apart this team, I would say they lack ability in the air. RJ was the only arial threat, and as slow as he was, added a dimension to the team that is missing this year. In the handful of games that Max was featured in, we didn’t see an ability to hold up play, RJ did this. I’m hoping Gaston lives up to his reputation, another playmaker will free up valeri to conduct the game.
Contrary to what was mentioned by others, Jewsbury is actually very reliable when anchored at right back, he picks a few times to push up and does so smartly. He is above average in the air. Harrington is the free wheeler on the left, which is what we need. Gaston should be able to push central more often and create, find gaps. The finishing will be the Achilles heal of this team. Will, Nagbe, Valeri will have to put the ball in the net… Max and gaston just don’t seem like the finishers we need. Hope I’m wrong. Relying on these three for goals is suspect, they are great, but I don’t see a ton of finishing out of the,
I’d like to see zakuani make a comeback and challenge gaston at left. I think he can fill and surpass the void that Wallace has left. Push Wallace to improve.
The defense will be very string this year. If Donovan maintains beast form behind an improved back four (futty is a favorite, but a liability with the ball at his feet) this defense will not require windfalls of goals from the timbers midfield to win games.
Keys to the season:
Finishing opportunities created
Midfield needs to get nastier
this looks like one of the best offenses in the league. if the new CB is any good Portland should be good this year.
apparently a backup goalie can be considered a ‘key’ addition and loss?
I don’t expect Urruti to score more than 6 goals this season. Honestly, I am not concerned if he does not score that many, because his primary job isn’t really to score all the goals, but rather, put the defense under pressure and make the opposition lose the ball, passing it away under pressure to either Fernandez, Valeri, Nagbe, or Will Johnson. As long as Urruti puts teams under pressure and makes teams turn the ball over to our midfield, who scored a ton of goals individually last season, we should be fine. Of course it would be a plus if Urruti scores quite a few also, but I don’t think that is his primary job for this season, but to disrupt and help feed balls through to the wingers.
Encore ? No one should be calling for an encore for a good, but ulitimately losing season.
They need to get better than Salt Lake City and probably KC too. That is it.
I think in many ways they probably are better. Young team gets older and presumably better. Nagbe looked very good in preseason in the game I went to.
Losing season? Not sure winning the Western Conference with a 14-5-15 record is considered a losing season by anyone but you, but heh, we all get to express our opinions these days, and you’re a touch ‘crazy nuts’, IMO.
15 draws are just as close to losses as they are to wins. Credit the team for being tough to beat but they didn’t set the world on fire even if they burned Portland to the ground.
This season they could advance just a little wreck the rest of the league, or they could regress just a little and be a huge disappointment.
They’re good, but before they be anointed, let’s acknowledge that they crapped their pants against RSL and that is something that simply cannot happen this season.
Uhmm. Flawed reason again.
Last year wasn’t a losing season. Those draws earned them first in conference. Sounds like a winning strategy for a rebuilding year to me.
I’ll take it all over again, because that few of losses and 1-2 more wins = supporter shield.
There will be no more crapping the bed with RSL either with their leadership changes. How about I give you one more chance for your effort.
Yeah, this is an incredibly ignorant comment. How is losing 5 games out of 34 a losing season? Oh, that’s right, it isn’t. I’m not even a Portland fan and I admired their progress last year.
Your final assessment is somewhat negative, especially considering the two prior BIG losing seasons in which the Timbers played like amateurs. However, you are absolutely correct that they need some improvement in 2014. Even though Jewesbury seems like a very nice guy, he will be a defense weakness just like he was last year. Also, up-front there was a need of a little more firepower/goal shooting prowess during last season in which Timbers ended-up with very many tied games.
Cant wait for the season to start. This team will be a complete blast to watch. Nagbe’s ability to control the ball in tight traffic and foot speed are unreal.