The 2018 season is going to feature a different, yet familiar, looking Portland Timbers team.
A win on the final day of the season secured not only the Cascadia Cup as the top team in the Pacific Northwest, but also the first seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Optimism ran high, but injuries derailed the side against the Houston Dynamo as they lost, 2-1, over the two legs.
Now, a coaching change and the loss of a key player later, the club has moved on from 2017, despite the feeling of being hard done by injuries at the worst possible time.
“To be fair, we felt just a bit unfortunate against Houston,” goalkeeper Jeff Attinella told SBI. “We lost three key guys for the first leg and then lost a couple guys in very light training leading up to the next one. That’s just kind of the breaks. I think everyone’s been able to turn the page.
“We know we have a good core group, we know we’re capable of winning,” he added.
While that core group is mostly the same as it was last year, there are two massive differences in this team. The first is a new head coach in the form of Giovanni Savarese. He comes in from the NASL’s New York Cosmos and takes over for the departed Caleb Porter, who led the team to the playoffs in three out of five seasons and won the MLS Cup in 2015.
Savresse is taking over an MLS club for the first time, but he had a long playing career that featured stops around the world, including stints at the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, New England Revolution, and San Jose Earthquakes. His coaching resume also contains a lot of success in the second division. He took over the Cosmos in 2013 and led them to three NASL titles in five years.
Players need to adjust to a new coach, who brings with him a new playing style and new procedures. Savresse’s Timbers are going to do away with the quick, counter-attacking style championed by Porter and move to a system that plays from the back and relies on stable transition from the defenders, through the midfield, and onto the forwards.
“I think if you look around the world and especially look around MLS a lot of teams are trying to adapt to playing out of the back instead of lumping long and stepping up the group, just trying to build,” said Attinella. “It seems like soccer has been heading in that direction for a while and that’s definitely the style that he’s brought in for this year.”
Forward Fanendo Adi feels this new system is going to help put the team in better positions to score, while keeping their opponents off the ball.
“If you are able to play from the back and able to apply pressure you are in a better position,” he said. “That’s why we are focusing on keeping the ball, playing through the back, to the midfield, then to the forwards. That’s a little bit different from what we used before.”
The other massive change from last year is the departure of Darlington Nagbe, who was traded to Atlanta United over the winter. It’s a huge loss, for sure, but it’s another chapter the Timbers are moving on from while keeping the focus on the here and now.
“He was a good guy, big part of the locker room,” Attinella said. “With that being said, every year is different. We lost him, but we adopted a few more guys and brought in new personalities.”
So it’s going to be a different sort of Timbers team in 2018, and here’s a closer look at them:
PORTLAND TIMBERS SEASON PREVIEW
2017 Finish: 15-11-8 (1st in the West)
Key Acquisitions: Andy Polo, Cristhian Paredes, Andres Flores, Julio Cascante
Key Losses: Darlington Nagbe, Darren Mattocks, Ben Zemanski, Gbenga Arokoyo,
Newcomer to Watch: Andy Polo
Polo has the monumental task of filling the void left by the departure of Darlington Nagbe. While not the same style of player, he’s been praised for his speed down the flanks in attack, but has questions in his technical ability on the ball. He joins the team on loan from Monarcas Morelia in Liga MX, where he started 19 games and scored two goals. Despite being only 23 years old, the Peru international is quite well traveled. Before Monarcas, he had stops at Universitario de Deportes and Universidad San Martín in Peru, Inter Milan in Italy, and Millonarios in Colombia. He failed to catch on in either of these stops, so he’s hoping the Timbers and MLS get his career on the right track.
Pressure Is On: Liam Ridgewell
The Timbers defense went from its greatest strength during their 2015 title run to being its most glaring weakness two years later. Liam Ridgewell is the centerpiece of this outfit and will have the task of bringing this ragtag bunch of misfits together, and keeping it together. Another defensive relapse over the course of the season could lead to changes in the backline that might cause the aging Ridgewill his job.
The Timbers scored more goals than anyone else in the Western Conference last year, despite losing Fanendo Adi for the last three months of the season and the playoffs. A big part of that was the MVP caliber performance of Diego Valeri, who was seemingly involved in every scoring move the team made.
Carrying over that form will be important for them going forward, but such things are never easy. Adi, who has played with Valeri since he arrived in MLS in 2014, feels it won’t be easy for the maestro to repeat last season.
“Coming off such an amazing season, hopefully his head is going to be down, he’s going to know that nothing comes easy,” he said. “He’s going to work harder than he did last year to be able to be at that level again.”
But Valeri won’t be leading the Timbers attack by himself. He will have Sebastian Blanco on one wing. and the electrifying Andy Polo manning the other. The speedy Peruvian has turned a lot of heads in camp already and the entire team is looking forward to seeing what he can do when it counts.
“He’s a fast dangerous winger,” Attinella said about the newcomer. “He’s been a big addition. Polo’s been exciting everybody. We watched his YouTube clips that people put up and his speed definitely didn’t disappoint.”
The central midfield will be stable once Diego Chara fully recovers from the broken foot he suffered against the Dynamo in the playoffs. The holding midfielder will be flanked by Costa Rica international David Guzman, who plays the good cop to Chara’s yellow card-accumulating bad cop,
Defensively, the Timbers won’t look much different than they did last year, but they are hoping for a little more consistency on who plays.
The back four remains unchanged from the planned starting lineup for the second half of last season. Liam Ridgewell still sits in a central defense partnership with Larrys Mabiala. Alvas Powell, who’s still only 23, still mans the right back spot, as he has since the middle of 2014. Vytautas Andriuskevicius, who came into his own in 2017 after struggling to adapt to MLS two years ago, is the guy at left back.
This unit will need to be less porous this season, although keeping the starters out of the infirmary will certainly help. Portland gave up the second most goals of any playoff team last year, but that was partly because they used ten different players in their backline throughout the year.
The Timbers can be nearly a lock for a playoff spot in the West if they remain relatively uninjured. Thankfully, in the likely event where someone important does go down, much of their offseason was spent addressing the lack of depth that ultimately derailed them last year. If those other pieces can step up when called on, and the entire squad can adjust to the new ways of Giovanni Savarese, than Portland can count on another strong regular season that will lead to a playoff berth.
Jeff Attinella knows where the team stands in a Western Conference with so many contenders. When asked what he things his team’s chances are in a wide open race he responded, “Just as good as everyone else, right?”