The Portland Timbers’ offseason was never going to be about making radical changes to a team that had made the playoffs three seasons in a row. No, the plan was to give head coach Giovanni Savarese options in all areas of the field.
“We needed to improve in some areas, but we also needed to bring a little more depth in others,” Savarese told SBI. “And the main focus for us, we had to make sure that we brought the type of players that were going to be able to bring versatility.”
“Overall, I think that we found the right people. Credit to [GM] Gavin [Wilkinson], credit to everyone involved, the scouting department, the coaches.”
At the back, Portland added Croatian defender Dario Zuparic, who fits in well with the established pair of Larrys Mabiala and Bill Tuiloma. He won’t start right away, but, as was the goal of the Portland offseason, he provides much needed depth and could work his way into a starting role once he’s established in MLS.
“We have a tight-knit group back there,” goalkeeper Steve Clark told SBI. “They’ve been together for a bunch of games and they kind of know how each other play and what to expect.”
The team added several options in the midfield, headlined by Yimmi Chara, brother to longtime Timbers midfield destroyer Diego. While the two are bonded by blood, they are far from the same player on the pitch. While the older Diego acts as a midfield shield for the back line, racking up yellow cards and constantly making himself a nuisance to opposing attacks, Yimmi will focus on moving forward and creating attacking options for his teammates.
“If [Diego] Chara’s running people down, Yimmi’s running forward,” Clark said. “It’s really fun to have those brothers in the locker room and certainly on the field.”
Yimmi joins an already-crowded midfield with lots of options. Andy Polo should still be the top option, but Chara will provide competition for him, as will Marvin Loria, who made a handful of starts out wide last year as well.
Up front is where the team made the biggest splash with the addition of Polish striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda, who figures to be the team’s lead forward, something they only had for a brief time last year. Niezgoda brings a reputation for scoring a lot of goals with Legia Warsaw in the Polish Ekstraliga. He had 14 goals in 18 appearances this season before the transfer.
“He’s a goal scorer,” Savarese said about him. “He’s someone that was able to have success in a very competitive league. Those players have been able to come to MLS and do very well.”
Savarese then went on to compare him to another import from Legia, Nemanja Nikolic, who scored 51 goals in three seasons with the Chicago Fire.
But again, depth is the name of the game, even up front. Jeremy Ebobisse and Felipe Mora are both going to be viable attacking choices capable of starting a game, complimenting each other, or coming on as a substitute when a late goal is required.
“They all are different from each other,” Savarese said, “they all can score goals, they all can play together, and they all can play as a lone striker as well. They play the position in a different way, so for us having the versatility of players is very useful.”
Here’s a closer look at the 2020 Portland Timbers:
Portland Timbers Season Preview
2019 Finish: 6th place in West (14-13-7, 49 points)
Key Acquisitions: Dario Zuparic, Yimmi Chara, Blake Bodily, Jaroslaw Niezgoda, Felipe Mora
Key Losses: Brian Fernandez, Zarek Valentin , Kendall McIntosh, Modou Jadama, Foster Langsdorf, Claude Dielna
NEWCOMER TO WATCH
Portland didn’t make a huge splash on the transfer market this winter, but they did need to find a leading striker, which they only had for a short time in 2019. To that end, they brought in Polish forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda from Legia Warsaw. Savarese praised his now goal scoring threat and his pedigree as a finisher in Poland. He scored 14 times in 18 appearances this season before crossing the Atlantic. Savarese also compared him to Nemanja Nikolic, another import from the Polish Ekstraliga who scored a lot when he came to MLS.
Pressure is On
The Timbers were in the middle of the pack defensively in 2019, but they had to thank Steve Clark’s heroics for their stats not being worse. Mabiala is arguably the best of the Timbers’ returning central defenders, and should be partnered with Dario Zuparic. He will need to play better than he did in 2019 though, or Savarese will have no choice but to give Bill Tuiloma and Julio Cascante their shots at a starting role (assuming Zuparic proves to be an upgrade).
The Timbers will be a tactically flexible team, if all goes according to plan. Their base formation will be the ever popular 4-2-3-1, but if the incoming midfield depth works out, don’t be shocked if the team goes with a couple of two-striker formations or decides to stack the midfield against teams with the ability to quickly counterattack.
In general, Diego Chara and Cristian Paredes will serve as the anchormen in the midfield with the usual suspects Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco leading the charge as they look to set up Niezgoda, or any of their three forwards, with as many chances as possible.
While Blanco will hold down the fort on the left side, and possibly see some minutes as a secondary strike option, Yimmi Chara should man the right wing, ahead of Peruvian winger Andy Polo.
The additions of Niezgoda and Yimmi Chara should give the Timbers the diversity in attack to help long-time stars Valeri and Blanco be even more effective, while the improved depth should help Savarese keep the team fresh through the grind of multiple competitions.
If the Timbers are going to be more than just a playoff team, then the defense will need to be better, and newly-acquired central defender Dario Zuparic will be crucial to that improvement. The Croatian central defender will be expected to provide Larrys Mabiala a better partner in the heart of the Timbers defense.
As long as the attack provides the goals they need, the defense should be sound enough to make a fourth straight trip to the playoffs. That is the bare minimum expectation. The Timbers have the talent and experience that has made a run to MLS Cup before, and another such run is far from out of the question.
A lot of their success will hinge on how they open the season. Portland has a history of slow starts leading into frantic finishes as they scrap into the postseason. Unlike a year ago, when they opened with two months of away matches, the team will have a run of home games in the first month of the season that could help them gain some confidence early on.
Even if they get off to a strong start, they will have a lot to contend with at the top of the Western Conference. LAFC is certainly the favorite and the defending champion Seattle Sounders are always formidable.
Goalkeepers: Jeff Attinella, Steve Clark, Aljaz Ivacic.
Defenders: Julio Cascante, Chris Duvall, Marco Farfan, Larrys Mabiala, Bill Tuiloma, Jorge Villafana, Dario Zuparic, Jorge Moreira.
Midfielders: Dairon Asprilla, Sebastian Blanco, Blake Bodily, Diego Chara, Yimmi Chara, Tomas Conechny, Andres Flores, Marvin Loria, Cristhian Paredes, Andy Polo, Diego Valeri, Eryk Williamson, Renzo Zambrano.
Forward: Jeremy Ebobisse, Felipe Mora, Jaroslaw Niezgoda.