Friday, March 3, 2017

It's Another Timbers Season Preview

I'm in there. Somewhere (Jennifer Kesgard)
It's match day, and I am slightly excited but it's also very different. I have already talked about how 2017 has already gone in a different direction with the forced sabbatical from Timbers coverage.  

Normally, I get the buzz of the early season optimism to see how the team has changed up their roster mix and start to analyze how this group is going to challenge the top echelon within MLS. With everything going, however, I haven't started that process until now. Maybe it was the collective thud of how the 2016 ended because after winning MLS Cup in 2015, the follow up season ended in a way that few predicted. 

I thought Portland would at least be able to qualify for the playoffs for a chance to defend the cup, but the issues that plagued their side persisted through the entire season as the campaign was mercilessly ended in October with a thrashing at the hands of the Vancouver Whitecaps. There would be no repeat, and the few things the Timbers could control - like earning the Cascadia Cup - all bounced away on the springy B.C. Place turf, and that left everybody associated with the team asking a ton of questions.

Suffice to say, the team responded in a very big way. The defensive line - leading the league in many categories in 2015 and gelling during their decisive cup run late - fell apart in 2016 under a whirlwind of player attrition. While the team sold Jorge Villafana to help their overall budget numbers to hold other players, the defensive replacements never did solidify under Caleb Porter's plan until Vytas joined later in the year. The heart and sole of the line, Nat Borchers, was injured midseason and had to officially retire as well, which took a lot of the bite out of the group. Yes, the Timbers could score goals, but the team lacked the ability to push teams wide because of ineffectual wing play and so goal scoring fell primarily on what Diego Valeri could create or Fanendo Adi could poach. Road warriors in 2015, the Timbers not only failed to win a road match in 2016, but suffered with a negative 19 goal differential away from Providence Park. Just 6 points earned on the road was enough to derail the plans, but for me - the problems really centered upon injuries/depth, the inability to stretch teams wide, and defensive instability.

Me & GB (Jennifer Kesgard)
I am pleased that Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson was able to make some moves to address the problems. Defensively, the team added Marco Farfan from Timbers 2 under a Home Grown Player contract. Farfan emerged as a talent for T2 last year, and seeing his promotion is one of the first big products rising from the team's academy. Former Sporting Kansas City fullback Chance Myers also joins Farfan, Alvas Powell, Vytas and Zarek Valentin to form a very solid crop of defensive backs. Gbenga Arokoyo, a talented center back signed late in 2016, was supposed to fill a role in the defensive middle until he ruptured his left Achilles tendon and will miss the 2017 season. Liam Ridgewell is back, and for now, he will see either former T2 center back Rennico Clarke, former New York Red Bull Roy Miller or former Sporting Kansas City and USL Portland Timber Lawrence Olum pair up with him. Each has question marks - Clarke is talented but young, Miller is stout but can be very reckless on the pitch, Olum is skilled but I think his best position is defensive mid, not center back - but the team will have to wait to bring on reinforcements as their preferred option to replace Arokoyo isn't available until his contract expires in May (per rumors).

Jake Gleeson took over the goalkeeping job when incumbent Adam Kwarasey was injured in 2016, and Gleeson ended up doing so well, the Timbers traded away Kwarasey to give the former Timbers U-23 & Timbers 2 star the job. While he performed very well on the pitch, he was arrested in the offseason on suspicion of DUII.  Gleeson pleaded no contest to the charges and completed an alcohol diversion program to avoid suspension, and MLS decided not to add any more penalties for the young Kiwi. However, the Timbers did make a move for goalkeeping depth by trading for former Real Salt Lake backup Jeff Attinella (Attinella was picked by Minnesota United in the 2017 MLS Expansion Draft, and the Timbers traded for him by sending MUFC the MLS right to Miguel Ibarra.) and promoting Kendall McIntosh from T2.  Attinella performed admirably when RSL stalwart Nick Rimando was unavailable, and it goes toward a theme the Timbers preached for 2017 - adding depth and competition at each position. While I expect McIntosh likely won't see time with the Timbers in 2017 except for Open Cup play unless there is injury, his T2 work in 2016 was enough that the team decided to move him up.

The Timbers midfield was able to keep most of its core together, but it lost two big pieces when Jack Jewsbury and Ned Grabavoy retired at the end of 2016 to move into the Timbers' front office. Portland didn't stay completely pat, however, as they brought in Sebastian Blanco to join the attacking midfield stable of Darlington Nagbe, Jack Barmby and Diego Valeri. Dairon Asprilla, who was loaned out after some internal issues with the club in 2016, was brought back as well while Lucas Melano was sent out on loan back to Argentina although the Timbers retained his MLS rights. While Asprilla and Melano were keys to the 2015 Cup run, neither player could completely replicate their success in 2016. The hope is that time away would energize Asprilla to fit more seamlessly into the attack, but with the various attacking options, playing time might be an issue. On the defensive midfield side, Portland added a player they saw up close in CONCACAF Champions' League play, Saprissa's David Guzman, to pair up with incumbent destroyer Diego Chara. Guzman will likely stay more home to support the defensive line, which should allow Chara to play more forward to win balls and create turnovers. The Timbers have other options in Amobi Okugo, Ben Zemanski or Olum to play here if needed, but honestly, i would expect to see Guzman and Chara for nearly every match in 2017, injuries or suspensions none withstanding.

Trading Card Photo (Jennifer Kesgard)
Up top, Portland said goodbye to veteran Jack McInerney, but still have Adi and Darren Mattocks available. They added Jeremy Ebobisse in the 2017 Super Draft under a Generation adidas contract (many insiders were expecting him to go early, but he fell all the way to the 10th spot and the Timbers wasted no time to select him) and Victor Arboleda from T2. Honestly, this is Adi's show up top, and his pre-season form - 6 goals overall - is impressive, considering there were overtures during the 2016 season that Fanendo might want to leave the Rose City. Adi ended up staying, and there are many who feel he could insert himself in the 2017 Golden Boot race with the other pieces Portland added. Mattocks is talented in many ways, but his biggest issue has been staying healthy for stretches over the years. What I am pleased about is the fact that I do expect to see more young players - Ebobisse, Arboleda, Barmby - rotate through the offense to give them chances and exposure. While the Timbers certainly aren't an old side in MLS comparisons, I feel they have struggled through the years integrating draft picks and young players into their attack regularly with one notable exception - Nagbe. With all these pieces and Nagbe now exclusively starting on the left, my hope is that this rotation will give the Timbers space to attack and spring players wherever possible. 

On paper, this team looks loaded and if things shake out, I could see them competing for MLS Cup 2017. But there are plenty of questions to sort out that could sink the ship as well that need to be addressed. Can the trio of Clarke, Olum and Miller hold up at center back alongside Ridgewell until reinforcements arrive? Will Guzman and Blanco acclimate to the Timbers over the season? Is there enough depth at forward? For now, the answers seem to be it's Olum's job to lose initially, Guzman and Blanco have integrated nicely, and the summer transfer window will have 2 spots available to fill with the Timbers carrying 26 players on the March 1 roster compliance deadline:

Goalkeepers (3): Jeff Attinella, Jake Gleeson, Kendal McIntosh
Fullbacks (5): Vytas, Marco Farfan, Chance Myers, Alvas Powell, Zarek Valentin
Center Backs (5): Gbenga Arokoyo, Rennico Clarke, Roy Miller, Lawrence Olum, Liam Ridgewell
Defensive Midfield (4): Diego Chara, David Guzman, Amobi Okugo, Ben Zemanski
Attacking Midfield (5): Dairon Asprila, Jack Barmby, Sebastian Blanco, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri
Forwards (4): Fanendo Adi, Victor Arboleda, Jeremy Ebobisse, Darren Mattocks

International Players (8): Adi, Arboleda, Arokoyo, Barmby, Blanco, Clarke, Guzman, Ridgewell
Designated Players (3): Adi, Blanco, Valeri
Home Grown Players (1): Farfan
Generation adidas Contract (1): Ebobisse
Out on Loan (1): Lucas Melano (Club Atletico Belgrano)
Injured Reserve (1): Arokoyo (Achilles injury, out for 2017 season)

Uh, yeah. (Jennifer Kesgard)
For the purposes of my grid, I use the positional tracking for my benefit realizing that many players will play different positions on the pitch or defy one category for their skills. If you are interested in additional updates and comments, please track my handle on Twitter (@kipkesgard) as I will be live tweeting where and when I can. 

While this isn't the huge, in-depth series of posts I used to do for the season, I'm pleased to be writing anything at this point. As always, comments are appreciated and I can't wait to get this rolling in just hours from now. Meanwhile, I will continue to appear weekly on Rose City Soccer Show and here's our season preview - well a link to it anyway.


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