Saturday, January 26, 2019

2019 Brings A New Year For The Portland Timbers - First Post of the New Year

One of my pride and joys is this print, complete with various cards.
It was a crazy end to 2018 and the situation hasn't slowed down that much in 2019, either. That is part of the reality with the Portland Timbers playing matches into the first part of December and starting their training camp this coming week. All of the decisions for a team that didn't make the playoffs make over several months get compressed into a tight time window, but that's the reality of the league at this point. Well, until the 2019 season when MLS has decided that the playoff format will be altered and the season compressed slightly. The 2019 campaign starts on March 2, and ends on October 6 - a full 3 weeks ahead of previous years. After observing a slight break of a week, the playoffs will expand to 7 teams per conference with there being 3 play-in matches (seed 2 v seed 7, seed 3 v seed 6, seed 4 vs seed 5), but every series is a single match staged at the venue of the higher seed. The 2019 MLS Cup takes place on Sunday, November 10, approximately 1 month before previous iterations of the league championship. This really gives the league some actual down time, which in retrospect, is likely a good thing. Even the most top leagues give players a break in fixtures, but MLS has really pushed that concept with roughly 6 weeks between the end of a season and the start of training camp. I'm not a fan of adding playoff matches, but do agree the simplification of the post season will end up being a good thing because it rewards regular season success.

In looking about the other league news and business, I thought it would be easier to look at each topic based upon the subject from where we left off last season - changes within the league, coaching news, significant roster moves by the Timbers, and a look at the current roster up to now. But we have to start our discussion with the 2019 schedule. Due to ongoing construction at Providence Park for the east side expansion, the Timbers play their first home match for 2019 on June 1 when LAFC visits. Portland plays their first 12 matches on the road, and has a 10 match homestand between August 10 and September 25, which essentially slants the entire season. Portland makes just two trips to the East Coast in June and early July, a visit to the Emerald City in late July, their first look at Allianz Field in August to play Minnesota United FC, and a trip to Kansas City to play Sporting in late September. In most years, the goal for clubs is to try to maximize points at home and draw on the away legs, but with the huge disparity in travel, it will be important that Portland gain as many points as they can away from home. If the team waits until their home stretch to try and make a move, it might be too late to make up the ground if they fall behind. Consider the Timbers history in MLS on the road: 2011 - 2 W, 6 D = 12 points; 2012 - 1 W, 4 D = 7 points; 2013 - 3 W, 10 D = 19 points; 2014 - 7 W, 4 D = 25 points; 2015 - 7 W, 2 D = 23 points; 2016 - 0 W, 6 D = 6 points; 2017 - 4 W, 4 D = 16 points; 2018 - 4 W, 5 D = 17 points. The Timbers had a road stretch to start 2011 after the first run of updating Providence Park was going on, but there hasn't been anything like this before. The average of road points for Portland in the MLS era is 16 points, but for 2019, this might not be enough to earn before the home stretch starts.
Best wishes, Liam. Wishing you well in your next stop in your career.

For league business, MLS welcomes FC Cincinnati to the fold for the 2019 season, thus balancing the league with 24 total clubs and 12 per conference. This means for the 34 matches played in 2019, there will be a true balance - Western Conference sides play their fellow conference members 2 times, 1 home & 1 away, and the Eastern Conference teams just once. The whole playing sides 3 times and others twice was very confusing for many, so this means we really have true balance in the scheduling - until MLS adds teams 25, 26, 27 and 28. Nashville and Miami have been confirmed for 25 and 26, but in one of the oddest moves of the year, Austin FC was confirmed as team 27 this past week when the league and their ownership group approved a new stadium deal. Austin FC's owner, Anthony Precourt, was the owner of the Columbus Crew when he bought the team in 2013 from the original ownership group. Unbeknownst to many, Precourt had worked in plans to explore other markets if needed. In 2017, he triggered a clause and announced his intentions to move the Crew to Austin due to lack of community support. Over the following year, local supporters and businesses put out an all-stakes effort to keep the team in Ohio through any means, including using a state law that prohibited team moves without proper disclosure (created when the original Cleveland Browns bolted Ohio and became the Baltimore Ravens). The Crew ended up being saved with a brand new ownership group, which actually includes the owners of the new Browns franchise that returned to Cleveland, while Precourt was given the league's blessing to pursue a deal in Austin.

I never did like this situation to move a team unless absolutely necessary, and the metrics that were being pushed to support the move didn't hold water for me. Austin might be a lovely city, but there have been several big failures of previous soccer clubs, and the USL has put competition right in the area by putting in their own club to start play soon. Columbus has been a good market for the league, and while plans are underway to address a new stadium for the club, it does leave a bad taste in my mouth for several communities that have followed the MLS expansion rules in hopes to secure a club. The league had put out a request for prospective cities to file a request for expansion, and the league would go through several iterations to review the applications and pick the respective cities in a reasonable time table. FC Cincinnati jumped up to the top of the list because of big attendance and the ability to play right away, with Nashville and Miami officially joining in 2020. However, Austin's inclusion effective jumps several other cities that have been working to join the league, most notably Sacramento, CA, St. Louis, MO, Tampa, FL, San Diego, CA and Las Vegas, NV. The situation with the Crew was a huge headache that worked out in the end - Columbus keeps their team, Austin gets a stadium - but I do wonder if the other prospective franchises are happy about being pushed back further. Commissioner Don Garber has always indicated that the league wanted to get to 28 teams, but there is no plans to stay pat once the league reaches that number, which means we might continue to see markets added for some time.

Yes, it's weird to think he'll be back in the league.
This business side of the league and successes in each market are extremely important, which is why the stadium expansion at Providence Park is such a huge deal. However, the changeover project has impacted local supporters and their ability to see the team early in the year. We have been spoiled in previous years with the Timber hosting a local pre-season tournament, but the team hasn't staged one for the past few years, although there is a rumor this could return in 2020. For supporters wanting to get a close look at Portland before June, you might need to use some frequent flyer miles to get up close. The Timbers will train in Portland for 10 days before traveling to Costa Rica on January 30 to train for 11 days, where they will play Deportivo Saprissa, a club they've battled in CONCACAF Champions League play, and C.S. Herediano. Portland will then travel to their familiar haunts of previous pre-season years, Tucson, Arizona, for 2 weeks of training and 4 pre-season matches against MLS competition. For Timbers Coach Gio Savarese, it will be be paramount to gauge everyone's talents and early season fitness, but with the traveling for this club, the bigger goals will likely be building chemistry and familiarity with each other. It's weird to think that chemistry might be an issue, but Portland has seen several huge alterations to their roster from the team that advanced to 2018 MLS Cup. The core of the team is still very much present, which we'll talk about in the roster section, but Portland will need to figure out long term replacements in a few keys areas of their lineup.

Goalkeepers (4) Jeff Attinella, Kendall McIntosh, Aljaz Ivacic, Steve Clark
Fullbacks (3): Marco Farfan, Jorge Villafana, Zarek Valentin
Center Backs (5): Julio Cascante, Claude Dielna, Modou Jadama, Larrys Mabiala, Bill Tuiloma
Defensive Mids (5): Diego Chara, David Guzman, Cristhian Paredes, Eryk Williamson, Renzo Zambrano
Attacking Mids (6): Dairon Asprilla, Sebastian Blanco, Marvin Loria, Andy Polo, Diego Valeri, Andres Flores
Forwards (4): Jeremy Ebobisse, Foster Langsdorf, Lucas Melano. Tomas Conechny

2019 MLS Draft Picks: F Ryan Sierakowski, D Lennart Hein, D Francesco Moore, M David Zalzman

Timbers 2: GK: Mangels, Pack; D: Batista, Diz Pe, Hanson, Mulligan, Ornstil, Phillips, Smith; M: Enriquez, Lewis; F: Jambga, Williams

Designated Players: Blanco, Valeri
Home Grown Players: Farfan, Langsdorf, Williamson
International Players: Cascante, Conechny, Ivacic, Loria, Mabiala, Paredes, Polo, Tuiloma, Zambrano.
Jeremy Ebobisse opens 2019 as the team's most experienced striker. 

With the current additions of Ivancic via transfer from NK Olimpija Ljubljana and the Timbers trading with the New England Revolution for the rights to Dielna, a center back that lost favor with their coaching staff, the roster was sitting at 24 signed players just prior to league meetings. Portland then added 4 players via draft picks from the 2019 MLS Super Draft while continuing negotiations with 3 players from the 2018 team for this year - goalkeeper Steve Clark, midfielder Andres Flores and forward Tomas Conechny. The Timbers announced on January 24 that not only had they reached terms with Clark, Flores and Conechny to return to the team in 2019, but that Dielna had reached a deal plus Eryk Williamson would be returning from his loan stint in Portugal. With those additions, the roster currently sits at 27 players with 4 draft picks, and rumors persist that Portland is in negotiations with at least 2 designated player strikers and a right back to add to the roster. Both striker targets, Ezequiel Ponce and Julian Quinones, would be high profile adds for the Timbers in terms of resume, as both 21 year-olds have been very good in their previous stops and had been drawing attention from several other international clubs.

There are several key subtractions to the team from the 2018 roster, as we say goodbye to goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, defender Roy Miller, defender/midfielder Lawrence Olum, defender Liam Ridgewell and defender Alvas Powell. Gleeson, Miller and Olum had expiring contracts that the Timbers chose not to renew back in December, while Powell was traded to FC Cincinnati for allocation money right after the 2018 Expansion Draft where FCC made their first official MLS player selections. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the situation with Ridgewell where the team and Liam agreed mutually to terms for his outright release on January 10, 2019. At this point, none of the players have new clubs where they have joined, although Olum and Miller have been seen in early pre-season training with the Timbers in town to get in some training work. While some of the moves had been expected somewhat - Gleeson's status with the team had been in question since suffering another injury in 2018 as Attinella took over the starting role while Clark filled in admirably when Jeff himself was injured, plus Powell had been the subject of many discussions about trades. The fact, however, that all the subtractions during the offseason were on the defensive side of the ball means that Savarese and his coaches have confidence in their young defenders while targeting to add experience in Dielna.

With Jake gone, Chara is the only 2011 Timber left.
Each of the departing players left differing legacies with their time in Portland. Miller was one of the team's better center backs when he first joined the club, and his injury affected the team's rotation late in the 2017 season. Powell arrived via loan back in 2013 as an 18 year old defender, and leaves being in the top six in the MLS Timbers era relating to appearances; at points, Alvas showed great promise as a defender that reinforced his great talent, but he was never able to show the lengthy consistency in his performance and fell out of favor once Villafana and Valentin took the starting fullback jobs. Gleeson won 3 cups as part of the Timbers organization - a 2010 PDL championship with the Timbers U23 team, a 2014 USL Championship with the Sacramento Republic (a then-affiliate of the Timbers), and the 2015 MLS Timbers - and while he did eventually win the starting job with the first team, he could never stay healthy enough to keep the job long term. Olum was a key cog of the USL Timbers back in 2007 and 2008 that eventually found MLS success with Sporting Kansas City for several seasons until SKC traded Olum back to Portland just before the 2017 season; Olum ended up filling in regularly at center back as the Timbers struggled with injuries. But perhaps the most influential signing of the group was Ridgewell back in 2014. At the time, the Timbers defense was lacking consistency, direction and organization, and Ridgewell brought in a sense of calm and confidence the group sorely needed. Yes, Ridgewell had a penchant for lackadaisical play at points and wasn't the strongest player physically, but his presence solidified a backline that needed it. Without him, Portland likely doesn't win the 2015 MLS Cup. Yes, there were better players for the Timbers, and some more influential, but perhaps nobody more important to the current Timbers era than Liam.

Even with having 27 players on the roster, there are still several questions within the team makeup that, will need to be addressed during the pre-season training. On defense, will Portland find depth in the fullbacks, or is the current trio of backs enough for the year? Is this the year that we see Cascante and Tuiloma take the starting roles, or will there be a rotation of backs between them, Mabiala and Dielna throughout the year? Does Portland have a viable succession plan for Chara and Valeri? Is it Paredes or Williamson for the defensive midfield role, and will we see Polo, Loria or Conechny give the Timbers other options if they need to rest Valeri? While Ebobisse has started to blossom as a true scorer for the team, what are the backup options behind him, especially if the team needs another experienced scoring option up top? Will the Timbers potentially loan out a player to get them more playing to free up a roster spot - many rumors have circled about the team loaning out McIntosh with the addition of Ivancic to the team, but nothing official has been noted yet. With the 2019 season starting on March 2, the roster compliance date for all teams will be days prior to those matches, so Portland has time to get their player portfolio completed.
He seems ready to go. Can we start things now?

It will be interesting to watch the pre-season work from other clubs as well to see who among the rest of the league will challenge the defending champions, Atlanta United. ATL didn't sit pat after winning MLS Cup either, in the fact that they lost several players from their 2018 roster, they added a huge offensive weapon in Pity Martinez. Colorado and Vancouver have significant remade their rosters, with new Whitecaps Coach Marc Dos Santos putting his imprint on a team that is trying to overcome the loss of Alphonso Davies via transfer to FC Bayern Munich. Los Angeles has undergone significant changes in their front office after Sigi Schmid stepped down as coach in September 2018 to be eventually replaced by former Columbus Crew striker Guillermo Schelotto. One of the more emotional events of the 2018 MLS offseason was the news that Schmid passed away on December 26, 2018 while awaiting a heart transplant. While his coaching counterparts Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena are highly regarded with their coaching resumes and success with the U.S. Men's National Team, Schmid was their equal in terms of success within domestic competitions and league titles within MLS. Another name familiar to Timbers fans was in the running for the Galaxy head coaching job, former Timbers Coach Caleb Porter, who hasn't held a coaching job since unexpectedly leaving the Timbers after the 2017 MLS season concluded. After going back and forth in considerations, Porter eventually took the head job in his old stomping grounds when he took the coaching job for the Columbus Crew when their head coach, Gregg Berhalter, left the club to take over the USMNT. Porter was the coach for the University of Akron men's team for seven season before he took the Timbers job in 2013, and his name had circulated around several coaching openings since his departure from the Timbers until now.

My intention in 2019 is to post here regularly each Wednesday with various updates and comments about the status of the team and thoughts on any news surrounding the team. It will be a very different season for everybody considering most of the action will be happening outside Portland although the team will return regularly to the Rose City during their early season travels during stadium construction. However, June will be here sooner that we realize and then the team will be home bound for the majority of the summer months to balance out the schedule. Personally speaking, I can't wait to get a good look at the new players and how the Timbers rebound from a rather successful 2018 season where few had them advancing to MLS Cup 2018. It was no secret that one of the reasons Porter left the team was a disagreement with the organization about the roster makeup, and it was amazing to see a new coach come in with essentially the same core from the 2017 Timbers and end up a mere 90 minutes away from their second ever championship. Portland will have a target on their back due to their success, but knowing Savarese, he's already been working on various strategies and approaches with his 2019 roster, and the acquisitions to this point appear to fulfill one of Gio's goals with his team - versatility. Now that we've seen Savarese's influence on a team that was largely put together before he arrived, it will be fascinating to see what happens now that he's more involved within the talent acquisition process.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Abbreviated Silly Season Begins As Timbers Fall In 2018 MLS Cup To Atlanta United

There is a good chance we'll see more of this guy next year for the Timbers
While paying attention on social media to all the events impacting traveling Timbers Army members, I spent a great deal of time dissecting something I noticed during the MLS Cup 2018 coverage. Yes, the combatants, the host Atlanta United from the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference champions, the Portland Timbers, got some due, but the broadcast on FOX covered everything from a league state of address with Commissioner Don Garber, an extended interview with new USMNT Coach Gregg Berhalter, a former MLS coach with Columbus who had been long rumored as the USSF choice over the longest, worst kept secret in soccer, and an anthem celebration that was, well, it reminded me of something. Seeing the various takes from the national media after the end result, a 2 to 0 win for Atlanta United, calling Atlanta's win "era defining" as Coach Tata Martino was leaving the club after the match for the Mexican National Team job. The atmosphere was pure "spectacle" and breath taking, and it even led one local columnist to take a shot at the Pac-12 for not thinking ambitious enough about their aspirations.

Considering that most columnists still consider MLS to be a lower rung sport not worthy of regular coverage or being truly trend setting, this might very well be a true letter box moment. Having grown up as a pointyball fan of the NFL since I was very young, Saturday night reminded me all too much of that league's championship, the Super Bowl. When I was younger, the game had a bit more pageantry than the regular season because it was the season finale, but over the years, the Super Bowl has become a monstrosity. The game itself pales in direct comparison with the overblown pre-game festivities, dramatic rendition of the anthem, new product commercials, the halftime extravaganza, the end of game coverage, followed up by whatever premiere or show gets lucky enough to follow said game. Millions of people worldwide spend their day eating massive quantities, watching a game that decidedly few really care about, mostly for the outside antics and being able to talk about whatever events transpired with their work colleagues the next day. Many outlets have been asking that the Monday after Super Bowl should be a standing holiday considering how many people watch the game and drink to excess, making the following day huge for absenteeism. When a 7 year old actress/singer came out in Atlanta and belted the anthem - honestly, that's about as good as I can describe it, and I already have issues with the whole anthem process anyway - it hearkened back to the last few Super Bowls I've bothered to watch. Throw in pyrotechnics and loud music, smoke everywhere, a pre-match ritual involving a spike, and the loudest train whistle I've ever heard, and apparently the atmosphere was amplified to ADHD proportions.

The last original USL Timber is now officially gone after becoming a free agent
This was just the few impressions I got from television, but in reading various posts on Twitter, it seemed like everything was designed to make this a true showstopping exhibition. Whether this is how Atlanta matches are regularly or not, it seemed like everything was designed to showcase the city, stadium and fans in the best possible light - and I'd expect some of that anyway. As the match wore on, however, it seemed more and more like the powers that be were determining ways to anoint Atlanta as the next big thing in MLS, and that everybody else should be wary or do their level best to keep up. Call it ambition, call it arrogance, call it whatever - the win by Atlanta should be a wake up call for the rest of MLS that the rules of the league have changed, and those not willing to put in the time and investment to try and match them could be left in the dust and debris. Suffice to say, that has become more of the norm in the world of sports, as teams continue their efforts to maximize every revenue stream available and review each league rule to find any and every competitive advantage available to separate themselves from the pack. Portland itself is going through this exercise as Providence Park is getting a face-lift to add a full double deck of seating on the stadium's east side to add to the park capacity. Stadium revenue is an important component of any side, and maximizing that to augment a massive home stadium experience while denting the long season ticket wait list is a huge win.

The match itself really boiled itself down to a few key moments in time after Timbers Coach Gio Savarese chose his starting eleven: Jeff Attinella in goal; Zarek Valentin, Larrys Mabiala, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana on defense; Diego Chara and David Guzman as the defensive midfield; Diego Valeri, Andy Polo and Sebastian Blanco as the attacking midfield; Jeremy Ebobisse as the forward. With Mabiala back, it was the strategy to use the experience of Ridgewell and Mabiala to deal with the speed and tenacity of Atlanta United strikers Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. We already knew going in that Martino was done at game end, but rumors had been circulating for days previous that Atlanta would likely be selling either Martinez, Almiron or both to bring in more money to secure talent. With Atlanta already making one big move - trading for former Portland playmaker Darlington Nagbe and adding him to a midfield with Julian Gressel and Eric Remedi - United had surged to the East title behind a powerful offense and a defense that limited mistakes. Veteran center back Michael Parkhurst and goalkeeper Brad Guzan rarely get caught in the wrong spot, so it would be up to Portland to find space and time to counter when they could. The team, however, seemed to content to play their strategy of absorbing pressure to frustrate Atlanta and then catch them on the counter when they were being too aggressive.

This guy got a new contract, which is very well deserved
In the 20th minute, Atlanta defender Greg Garza put a cross to the top of the box for Martinez, and Mabiala tapped the ball away as Josef rolled to the turf. The home crowd and many observers felt the contact warranted a penalty, but it appeared that Mabiala not only got to the ball, but didn't really touch Martinez. Nine minutes later, another Garza cross found Almiron in the box, and he executed a spin kick shot towards the left post that Attinella pushed clear for a corner. The tempers were flaring more as the minutes continued until the 39th minute when Parkhurst cleaned out Ebobisse off a clearance, and the ball rebounded back to Martinez, standing at the top of the box without a mark and clear on goal. Mabiala was slow in tracking back, which allowed Martinez to stay inline, and despite the efforts of Ridgewell and Attinella, Martinez put in the easy tap in to give the home side a 1 to 0 lead. Portland, however, had a huge response as Blanco put a cross into the box for Ebobisse, and the youngster put a header on frame that forced a late reaction save from Guzan. The fact that Jeremy did this while being bracketed and fouled was impressive, but Ebobisse did need treatment after landing awkwardly. The match went into the half with Atlanta clinging to the 1 to 0 lead, but the next goal would likely be the key - Portland gets it, it's game on, but if Atlanta could add to their lead, it might be game over.

Portland ramped up the tempo to start the second half and seemed very re-energized after the break, but it was United that caught the first break when Mabiala was called for a foul on Martinez on a back pass. While Larrys got to the ball and cleared it initially, Center Official Alan Kelly judged Mabiala had gone through Martinez, even thought it appeared on replay that Josef was already going to ground. Almiron's restart found the head of Martinez, who punched it wide right for defender Franco Escobar, and his tap in past Attinella extended the lead to 2 to 0. While Portland did have some chances late after adding Lucas Melano, Alvas Powell and Dairon Asprilla on, Atlanta was able to ride out the match to secure their first ever MLS Cup. Atlanta's strategy of bracketing Valeri and Blanco to force somebody else to beat them seemed to work, as Valeri was held relatively in check most of the night, while Blanco was able to unleash a few quality shots and the cross to Ebobisse. In this round of the playoffs, Portland's supporting cast had been able to provide a spark or play to help their team secure a result, but on this night, the magic finally wore out and the Timbers didn't have an answer. Savarese was very happy at his team's effort, saying they couldn't have given much more, although he felt the officiating cost Portland dearly with the foul on Mabiala that gave Atlanta their free kick chance for goal number two.
This guy is now officially a Portland Timber and not just on an extended loan.

It certainly seemed very somber after the match and the following day when the team returned to Portland, knowing that the 2018 was done and it was another side that was hoisting MLS Cup. The business of the 2019 MLS season had already begun as rumors and news of various trades had already been filling social media. Portland had to make some key decisions about their squad - it seems Attinella is the number 1 goalkeeper, but who backs him up? Does the defense need an upgrade? What does Portland do to augment their midfield to support and eventually replace Chara and Valeri? Does this team need more creativity and firepower, now that it appears that Samuel Armenteros is not part of their long term plans? How do you find experience to fill needs while not squashing the developing youth that will man this club in a few years? Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson might have his critics from years of being a coach during darker times or making unusual personnel decisions over the years, but in his tenure at the helm of the Timbers, Thorns and Timbers 2, we've seen 3 championships, several playoff berths and other accolades. It's not a perfect record, but Wilkinson seems to have found a formula that works with Savarese's tactics and it produced a feisty, resourceful Portland team that was fun to watch most nights. Although MLS Cup wasn't their best overall effort, it was a joy to watch this group fight and claw to the Western Conference title. 

 On the eve of the next MLS Expansion Draft to populate FC Cincinnati's first MLS roster for next year, the Timbers announced their 2019 roster status before offseason moves can begin. After forward Fanendo Adi was traded to FC Cincinnati, there were reports that the teams have a handshake agreement that nobody from the Timbers will be picked during the 5 selections made on December 11. Portland also released the current contract status for their entire team:

Under 2019 Contract: goalkeeper Jeff Attinella; defenders Julio Cascante, Marco Farfan, Larrys Mabiala, Alvas Powell, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana; midfielders Diego Chara, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Dairon Asprilla, David Guzman and Erik Williamson; and forward Lucas Melano. 
Loan Extended: midfielder Cristhian Paredes (Club America)
Loan Converted to Contract: midfielder Andy Polo. Polo completed the necessary contract thresholds for his contract to revert to the Timbers, and he is now officially a Timbers signee.
Re-Signed Contract: defender Zarek Valentin, who got a new deal to stay in Portland.
Contract Options Extended: goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh, defenders Modou Jadama and Bill Tuiloma, and forwards Jeremy Ebobisse and Foster Langsdorf.
Contracts Not Extended or Out of Contract, But In Negotiations To Return: goalkeeper Steve Clark, midfielder Andres Flores, forward Tomas Conechny.
Contracts Not Extended: midfielders Victor Arboleda and Lawrence Olum.
Out of Contract: defender Roy Miller, midfielder Jack Barmby, goalkeeper Jake Gleeson.

This guy is also back for another season. For now. 
Williamson will be recalled from his loan in Portugal in time for the 2019 pre-season, while Paredes' loan is being extended. Of note that Miller and Gleeson are officially MLS free agents due to length of service in the league, and can negotiate with any team regarding a contract. Portland did also add some youth when former Timbers 2 players Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano signed first team deals today, adding some depth and speed to the midfield. While I'm sad to see these players go - Gleeson is the last holdover from the Timbers USL era to still be with the Timbers, leaving only Diego Chara as the lone MLS Timber from their inaugural 2011 season - I do feel that these moves add some youth in key areas, and give Savarese a chance to rotate in experience to build a strong foundation. Considering what he was able to accomplish in inheriting this club from last year, I'm thinking whatever he has planned should work out just fine for 2019. 

As far as what Atlanta has done with their team and atmosphere, I'm happy the area has embraced their team and that it's doing well for attendance, which is great for the league as a whole. It has made me appreciate how differently we do things here in Portland, not only relating to game day displays, but just as an organization. Not every team can follow the same approach, and so it's important to find what works for the fans that visit your matches. I can't see the pyrotechnics, very loud music and messages on the jumbotron working at Providence Park, but the team works very hard with the Timbers Army to create a game day experience that works. Whether you call it organic or authentic, what we do here is uniquely Portland - and I wouldn't change anything about it. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

MLS Cup Prediction Thread. Or Why Now Are We Tempting Fate?

What other tricks might the Maestro have in store for MLS Cup?
This site hasn't done prediction threads with any regularity since the events of the summer when our cat collective lost our most vocal participant with her thoughts about matches. So on the eve of MLS Cup with the Portland Timbers facing Atlanta United in their home park under rather steep odds, why start now? Atlanta United have been setting records all year in terms of attendance numbers and offensive numbers, and most prognosticators have been anointing them as the team to beat since the early stages of 2018. Atlanta has Plittle to disappoint, rampaging through the end of the regular season and playoffs with little to no opposition with a scrappy Timbers side being the only thing standing between them and this year's MLS Cup. With the odds stacked so decidedly in one direction versus the other, it seems as though the match tomorrow is just a formality for Atlanta United. The thing is, this stretch run for the Portland Timbers has been fighting against the odds for months, and honestly speaking, if there was a side that could upend this party, Portland is exactly the right candidate for the job.

Consider their run to the postseason. Portland started the season with 3 losses and 2 draws in their first five matches on the road before playing their first home match; while the win versus Minnesota was a victory, the Timbers struggled to overcome their own struggles and held on tight for the results. Over the subsequent months, Portland put together a 13 match unbeaten run to help stem the early season struggles, but a 4 match losing streak in August brought up the same early questions about whether Portland had the components to succeed long term. It's been a season long adjustment for the team under new coach Gio Savarese, who took over the side this year after Caleb Porter left unexpectedly after the 2017 season. The up and down results continued through September until the result that many said gave the Timbers the confidence that they could beat anybody at any point - a 4 to 1 win in Salt Lake City over Real Salt Lake on October 6. RSL and Rio Tinto Stadium has traditionally been a tough place for the Timbers to get results over the years, so overcoming all of that seemed like a really good indication that Savarese had his team in the right mindset. The Timbers followed it up with another win versus RSL at home, and a well played loss to Vancouver in the season finale using most of their young players. The results got the Timbers into the postseason as the fifth seed in the Western Conference, but they would have to win on the road in the knockout round to advance.
Sebastian Blanco has had 2 extremely memorable goals in the playoffs.

Portland wasn't supposed to beat FC Dallas, who has been one of the stronger teams in MLS over recent years. Previous versions of FCD have struggled late or in the postseason, but with the situation what it was, FCD was expected to advance. Portland not only advanced with a 2 to 1 win on the road, but did so after losing Lawrence Olum to a red card violation that forced Portland to play 10 men for the last 33 minutes of the match. With RSL upsetting LAFC in the other knockout round match, Portland ended up being paired with their long time rivals, Seattle Sounders FC, who had their standard summer pattern of a long unbeaten streak propel them from outside the playoffs in late June to the second seed in the West. Seattle traditionally plays strong soccer after July, and they've used this late success to win their own MLS Cup in 2016 while being traditionally a tough out in the playoffs. Portland went down a goal in leg 1 at home at Providence Park, but they responded with 2 goals to regain the lead. While Portland didn't get another goal at home, they had the 1 goal overall lead versus Seattle despite conceding a road goal to the Sounders. In leg 2, the teams played a tense first half until Seattle got a goal early in the second half to get the series draw. Portland still had plenty of time to respond, and a goal from Sebastian Blanco was enough to break the deadlock and put the Timbers in the driver's seat to advance, but a late stoppage goal for the Sounders forced the teams to play extra time. After trading goals through the periods, the match went to penalties and the Timbers prevailed in dramatic fashion to play Sporting Kansas City, the top seed in the West.

Portland wasn't supposed to beat Seattle on their home turf in the postseason, especially on penalties. The circumstances of the match were altered because of a venue conflict, so Portland and Seattle ended up playing 4 days after the leg 1 match instead of the usual week lag time. After the victory, Portland had 2 and 1/2 weeks to wait to play SKC, who experts had tagged as the team to beat in the West. And match 1 in Portland ended up being a defensive chess match as neither side could tally a goal to give their team a lead, which put everything on what happened in leg 2 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. Sporting has a strong record at home in front of a raucous crowd, and with playing again 4 days later on the road, the Timbers weren't supposed to have a chance. In the first half, Sporting scored a goal and had 1 waived off due to interference in the box, but they were certainly dictating the tempo in the first 45 minutes. After having another goal waived off, it appeared that SKC was in complete control until Blanco struck again to level the match with a ridiculously awesome strike. Diego Valeri added another goal minutes later, and it looked like smooth sailing until the match was delayed by flying bottles from the crowd. Sporting got a goal back in the 80th minute to make it interesting, and when the officials showed 9 minutes of stoppage time, Sporting certainly had their chances to see if they could steal the result late.

Not bad for his first year as MLS Coach - qualifying for MLS Cup
In the ninth minute of stoppage, Blanco was at it again by clearing a ball from danger, but Diego Chara made a wonderful run to break down the left to run it down to control and hopefully run out the clock. Valeri had shaken his mark, and when Chara saw the Maestro in open space with no defense, Chara put a pass over to him where it was just Valeri versus Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia. The odds were in Valeri's favor in this matchup, and when Valeri put the shot into the back of the net, it caused a massive celebration among the visiting supporters and the Timbers' substitutes. Seconds later, the final whistle blew and Portland found themselves as the 2018 MLS Western Conference Champions and qualifying for their second ever MLS Cup berth. Portland could now plot their strategy to face Atlanta, who had already qualified for MLS Cup earlier in the day; both Eastern Conference participants had a better standing in the Supporters' Shield race than either Portland or Sporting, so regardless of the result, MLS Cup would be played at the home of the Eastern Conference Champion. Since those matches back on November 29, the experts have all indicated that it would be difficult to knock off Atlanta United in their home park with all the weapons they have and a massive home crowd of support.

However, Portland wasn't supposed to beat FC Dallas in Texas. Portland shouldn't have beaten Seattle in their home park. Portland wasn't supposed to run Sporting Kansas City out of their home park in leg 2 after not scoring in leg 1. Yet, Portland has done all of those things to qualify for MLS Cup. It's hasn't been pretty at points, as the backline has shown moments of inconsistent play and the offense has struggled to score during certain stretches. Portland has essentially rode the creativity and golazos of Blanco and Valeri, sprinkled with huge contributions from their supporting cast to advance, and right now, it's hard to bet against them while they are on this kind of roll. The Timbers have struggled in even year seasons - 2012 was the trainwreck that cost John Spencer his job, 2014 had a very talented Timbers club that should have qualified for the playoffs but bad results and inconsistent play kept them for achieving success, and 2016 saw the defending MLS Cup champions fail to qualify for the first time in postseason history. Portland has gone against the odds and tradition to get to this point all year, so anyone overlooking this bunch does so at their own risk. It might not be pretty, it might not work the way it's expected, and there might be mistakes along the way, but this scrappy, resourceful Portland Timbers side has done enough - and had some good fortune along the way - to get them a conference title.
We are back. And let's hope for more hardware

For me, the first goal of the match will likely be the catalyst for teams to adjust their attack, so I expect a chess match between Savarese and Atlanta United Coach Tata Martino. If Atlanta is able to score first - and they have one of the best pure scorers in the league in Josef Martinez - it will likely force Portland to counter and push to level, giving Atlanta chances to run their own counter off a turnover. If Portland can get the first goal, Atlanta could be forced to pressure even more with their numbers, and the Timbers are deadly on the counter - often absorbing pressure for long stretches until they have a chance to relieve pressure and challenge against the run of play. Atlanta loves to pressure their fullbacks forward, and that should give Portland a chance to attack wide, but they also struggle with wide pressure, and United would prefer to avoid pushing in the middle against the likely defensive midfield duo of David Guzman and Chara. Tactically, this should be a fun match to watch, but I'm expecting multiple goals on the night. My cats don't seem that interested in calling for a result, but I'm picking Timbers 3, Atlanta United 1 as my result which will give the Timbers their second ever MLS Cup. I might be tempting fate with this, but considering what Portland has done so far to get here, I'm actually in really good company.