Saturday, January 20, 2018

Timbers Enter New Era With New Coach Giovanni Savarese

Key Bank Section, East Deck, Providence Park, construction
Okay, who went and broke the east side of Providence Park? 
This has already been one weird off season for the Portland Timbers in watching their first ever MLS draft pick leave via trade in December after their coach from the past 5 seasons left back in November. The Western Conference winners from 2017 have been very patient in their search, and right after the Darlington Nagbe trade went official, the team confirmed that they had selected their next head coach, former New York Cosmos coach and MLS legend Giovanni Savarese. Due to varying schedules and construction at Providence Park and the practice complex in Beaverton, Savarese would not officially meet the Portland media until January 8 in the only conference room available, the post match conference area in the deep concourses in the underground of the park. It was standing room only as over 75 media members gathered to hear the first words of the Timbers' fourth coach in the MLS era. While many outlets were reporting this was the third hire, Portland has had 4 men officially coach the team in the MLS era since 2011: John Spencer, Gavin Wilkinson (on an interim basis), Caleb Porter and now Savarese.

Having been at the other two introductory conferences for Spencer and Porter, the energy felt very different between the various announcements were very different. Spencer was an experienced MLS assistant, and I don't think many had put too many expectations forward on a new head coach and a team that was just starting in MLS play. When Porter was officially brought on in 2013, his conference had plenty of intrigue between his background as a successful college coach, questions about the current Timbers roster mostly centered around then Timbers forward Kris Boyd, and firm team expectations starting to be cemented. Savarese comes to Portland with an impressive resume as a player (including being one of the first stars in MLS), youth coach, and coach in lower division soccer. When asked about coming to Portland now after spurning offers from Houston and Minnesota previously, Savarese indicated it was the right time to make the move. Considering the organization, the team and environment, it's hard not to be excited about the potential here.

Providence Park, smile sculpture, east side, Turner Construction
Something looks off here but I can't place it. 
Savarese mentioned passion, culture and organization several times in his nearly 50 minutes of comments following introductory remarks from Timbers Team Owner and Chairman Merritt Paulson and Timbers Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson that briefly mentioned the interview process. For Wilkinson, it was a matter that Gio "checked all the boxes" for him, which included one surprising addition for many fans - admission that the Timbers had the pieces to be competitive right now. While the Timbers were bounced from the postseason for a myriad of reasons, it's easy to forget that this group finished in the top spot in the Western Conference despite losing several players for extended periods of time. However, Portland isn't exactly the same side either, especially considering Darlington Nagbe is now wearing a red and black hit and playing in the Southeastern United States. At this point of the year, the case could be made that any club could be truly competitive provided the right pieces fall into place, and that's the part that many were concerned about. The Timbers have talent, but they would need fortification in several key areas - most notably center back - to even begin the conversation of being a truly elite side. Paulson talked more about being impressed with Saravese from the first meeting, and the positivity continued in the second interview when Gio brought a full scouting report on the good and the bad of the Timbers, which included ways that he could exploit the current setup and what he would do to mitigate these problems.

Many of the follow up questions talked about Savarese's background - former MLS player, international player, youth coach, ESPN analyst, NASL coach - but everything kept coming back to culture and passion. After listening to him for a few minutes, I wanted to run through a wall for him and I don't think balding 51 year old wingers with a questionable first touch and improving fitness will be high on his scouting list. Granted, most of the discussion falls into the common cliches in sports - every match is a final, we want everyone to play hard and compete, everyone will get a chance but they have to work, the season is a grind - but having a former player who is now coaching helps reinforce the point that depth and fitness will be at a huge premium. MLS is a fairly even league where parity reigns, and with matches starting in February to October, it's impossible to play the same collective week in and out to ensure they are healthy come post season. Gio also indicated he's not married to any one playing system either, so it's entirely possible that we could see differing formations depending on player availability, scheduling and scouting.

Gavin Wilkinson, Merritt Paulson, Giovanni Savarese
Gavin Wilkinson, Merritt Paulson & Gio Savarese address the Portland media.
There will also be input from the Timbers' new assistant coaching group, which underwent some revamping in roles. Sean McAuley, who has been with the Timbers since 2012 when he was hired after the Spencer firing, will remain as a first team assistant, but he will be joined by Carlos Llamosa and goalkeeper coach Guillermo "Memo" Valencia. Cameron Knowles and Adin Brown, assistants in 2016 for the first team, were reassigned to the Timbers 2 team with Knowles being named head coach and Brown joining former T2 Coach Andrew Gregor as his assistants. Familiarity is a big part of these moves by keeping many of the same names and faces, but adding talented and in-demand assistants (Llamosa has been with New England while also being an assistant to Savarese, while Valencia also coached for the Cosmos but had been linked with other jobs) should revitalize the approach, especially since Llamosa and Savarese like to play up tempo soccer building from the back. During his career, Valencia has also been a big advocate and believer in goalkeepers being more than shot stoppers and a true outlet for triggering the offense. In researching the Cosmos, I did see that they varied style and approach quite a lot thus reinforcing the tactic of changing things up to fit the personnel and opponent.

I'm intrigued by some of the talent on T2, but 2016 was less than stellar for the Timbers' top affiliated club in every aspect, so it will be interesting to see what Knowles can do with the group. Due to injuries on the first team, many players that were expected to help T2 were actually on the bench for the Timbers, but hopefully that won't be an issue this year. Savarese has a reputation for rewarding hard work in training and playing a mix of veterans and youth, so I'm expecting everyone to get an equal chance to earn the playing time - but they will need to perform and work hard to continue to play. Perhaps that seems very obvious, but I also feel some players portray an attitude of talent enough should be sufficient for me to be playing - and I don't see this approach happening under Gio. Right now, one goal that I would love to see for the entire Timbers and T2 is to truly build a similar platform and approach for both groups. I know Porter mentioned this on several occasions during his tenure, but in the few times I watched T2 in 2016, it didn't seem like that was the case. Whether it was execution, not following instructions, talent or youth going through learning how to play together, getting T2 back on track is as important a goal to me as figuring out the best mix for the first team.
maestro, Valeri, Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers, midfielder
Diego Valeri was super human in 2017. Will he repeat in 2018?

Savarese admitted the cupboard has some impressive talent, and when you have the reigning MLS MVP on your side in Diego Valeri, that's an impressive building block to start things. But anyone expecting Valeri to duplicate his 2016 output in terms of goals and assists might be disappointed if he doesn't, considering there has been only 2 players in MLS history with over 20 goals and 10 assists in a season. To expect a repeat of that is setting up this side for failure, for as much as I like Diego doing his creative best to aid this team, the Timbers need to establish a truly balanced attack. Getting Fanendo Adi back and healthy is a big start, but integrating him alongside Sebastian Blanco, Dairon Asprilla. Jeremy Ebobisse and the newly acquired Andy Polo is going to be paramount to keeping this attack on target. Polo's deal is intriguing as it's a loan from his parent club Monarcas Morelia for the 2018 season using Targeted Allocation Money with an option to buy; this allows the Timbers to use the TAM acquired from the Darlington Nagbe deal this season without taking on a massive future salary debt until after the season should they decide to exercise the option to keep Polo. I don't think it's possible to completely replace Nagbe within this attack, but having attacking options out wide and keeping Valeri available to patrol the middle and be creative is an idea I like. The Timbers were even able to promote one of their academy products when they signed forward Foster Langsdorf to a Homegrown Player deal this week. Langsdorf finished a productive career in college playing for Stanford University for four years, but Foster also played several seasons for the Timbers academy and for the Timbers U-23 club and was a very good scorer in each stop. As much as having veteran leadership is important, the Timbers must also continue to develop and play their youth by giving them chances to perform when they are earned.

Even with adding Polo, Langsdorf and the previously announced Julio Cascante at center back, there are still several questions that need to be resolved during training camp before the Timbers start the regular season on March 4 in Los Angeles facing the L.A. Galaxy. Who is your starter in goal - Jeff Attinella or Jake Gleeson? Does Cascante immediately move into the starting eleven at center back, or do we see Larrys Mabiala and Liam Ridgewell as the starting duo? Behind Cascante, Ridgy & Larrys, who are the main backups at center back, especially since I feel this is a position where the Timbers will need to add more reinforcement. I like Lawrence Olum a lot and he played very well at center back all year, but the club originally signed him as depth in central midfield and I actually think he's a better player there. Does Alvas Powell get the immediate nod to start in defense, or do we see a rotation of Vytas, Valentin, Farfan and Powell depending on who is most fit and fits within the attack strategy? It's actually nice that camp is nearly ready to start and we will start to see some of the answers to these questions, although the aforementioned construction means most matches for the 2018 preseason will be played in Arizona. At this point, it's just nice to see the beginnings of the season start to take shape and fans can all dream of another potential MLS Cup run.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Bringing On The New Year

It will be weird to see this guy in any other kit color than green. 
I hate writer's block. Seriously. It's got to be the worst things affecting anyone that ever tries to be creative with words, but honestly, there is plenty of reasons for this malady for me. The Timbers season ended rather abruptly, and the worst possible playoff schedule known to sports led to a rather disjointed end of season for most MLS fans not from Toronto. How the league can continue to put forth this plan year after year is beyond me, but then combine that with work frustration, world frustration and just common malaise, and it's hard to put words down. I realized I haven't written anything in this forum since mid-November, which is frustrating as anything because I've had ideas that I even started to put down and write. Then again, this is the twenty-eighth different version of this post after I've edited, reread and started over, mostly because thoughts are effectively all over the place.

Some of that could be attributed to social media, which has alternated between being fascinating and excruciating in a matter of seconds. While there are benefits about sharing information worldwide and being connected with people all throughout the world, it also brings the reality of issues right to the forefront. Instead of being more collaborative and inclusive, social media has also contributed (in my opinion) to much of the fragmentation going on right our. Our current leader spends so much time spouting off about whatever random thoughts he has for the moment, and it causes shockwaves for hours until something else happens. But this pattern repeats itself over and over again with several other accounts, and as much as folks try to rally and come together, it seems like it gets pulled apart again as quickly. And trying to vet out what is actual news and information is its own challenge - because effectively social media has given everyone a platform to share their ideas and world view with whatever audience finds them. I've spent a lot of time on Twitter providing my thoughts about Timbers, politics, cats and whatever else is going on, so then when it's time to write in a more long term format, the ideas stall. And I think I've finally figured out why.

What can this guy do for an encore after his 2017 season?
Social media allows ideas and information to flow quickly, but it's terrible at providing thoughtful and detailed analysis. Our world is so complicated and fast moving that analysis is hugely important, yet who really has time to figure out whether something is important, impactful or otherwise. This opens the door for opinion pieces and sites that will in part do the thinking and interpretation for us, but allowing that skewers the narrative, especially if those outlets have their own agenda and viewpoint. Within months, many news outlets have sprung up to put their voice out in a very loud and crowded marketplace, and for myself, I got overwhelmed by it all. As someone who works in media albeit part time, it's terrible for me to watch good people and great outlets constantly being run through the ringer for simply trying to report news. But several outlets simply appear not to care of the ramifications of their actions and are simply in it for the clicks and attention, letting the affects of their posts do what they may. Even in trying to focus on happy thoughts like sharing soccer and cats, it's hard to block out the rest of the world. I'm realizing though that instead of trying to stop it, it's time to start modifying the reality of it - or at least my small part of it.

I've never been party to talking about rumors, especially when it comes to the Timbers. Our club has grown from a mere afterthought in the USL/A-League/D2 days to part of the world collective of soccer, and if you really wanted to, there would be dozens of factoids about players that are interested in Portland, going to sign, not going to sign, or any combination of that. The ideas are started by agents, players, interested parties, or just other fans, and the credibility of those varies depending on the source. As an outlet, you could get totally bogged down trying to flesh all of this out and speculate for days upon end, but in the end, the end result is the reality of the roster. I'd absolutely love it if Messi decided to come to Portland, but it's likely never going to happen for a number of reasons - mostly money. And even if he did come at some point, it's likely that he would be here in the bare fringes at the end of his career. Yet it seems like every year during the Timbers offseason, the list of player wishes for signings always include the outlandish. Maybe it's supposedly funny, ironic, sarcastic, or some other idea, but for me, it's just plain stupid. I don't want to squash any ideas in that thinking because there have been several recent developments that I never thought I would see, and that keeps me humbled in knowing that while some events might be unlikely to happen, that doesn't mean they can't.

Team Tortie will be back in 2018 with some content.
I didn't see Caleb Porter leaving, but he made a decision to walk away. There's been rampant speculation about reasons and the why, and honestly, nobody outside of Caleb will ever truly know the truth. I've tried to analyze it from every angle - from current roster to the inability to hire his own assistants to the future to other job offers - and nothing comes up truly concrete. But I know him well enough to know one simple fact - when he's made up his mind to do something, he does it without hesitation. Something, whatever that is, told him it was time to move on and he did. As someone who hasn't always listened to those voices, I admire that conviction to stick with the thought even if it might not appear to be the right path. Sometimes the unexpected path is the right choice, or at least that's what they tell me. Portland now brings in Giovanni Savareese as their newest coach and the 4th individual of the Timbers MLS era (John Spencer, Gavin Wilkinson as interim, and Porter). Of the names bantered around ad nauseam by various outlets, Savarese was the most intriguing when I did the analysis - former MLS player, experienced coach, successful player on the club and international level, youth coach for years - and that's not counting his success with the New York Cosmos. After joining the organization in 2010 as a youth academy director, Gio took over the senior club in 2012 and proceeded to win 3 NASL titles until he left at the end of 2017 to pursue other coaching options.

Savarese had interviewed for MLS coaching jobs in Houston (2015) and Minnesota (2016), and was very close to becoming the Loons' first ever coach until the 2 sides couldn't reach financial terms for a transfer. Despite being in serious financial trouble, the Cosmos paid their coaches reasonably well and had a large transfer fee associated with Savarese put in his contract. Frustrated by the financial issues with the Cosmos and the league in general, Gio's contract expired at the end of 2017 which allowed him greater flexibility to find an ideal fit. Sure enough, the Timbers came calling and the sides were able to work out acceptable terms. Savarese has an extensive group of contacts from his many years in the game, and I feel it's only a matter of time before those names and links produce awesomeness. If you follow the rumors - and while I may not report on them, I still follow them to see what is going on - there are several names appearing that would vault the Timbers' roster from very good to exceptional. On January 8, the Timbers will have Gio's introductory press conference, and I'm curious to hear not only what he has to say, but if some of the rumors turn out to be factual or not (and I do expect some nuggets to be shared). I don't know if the conference will be streamed, but I will be there to cover it for my first official press appearance for 2018.

I hope he is healthy and ready for 2018.
That's another reason why a lot of player discussion going on in November and December seemed really odd, considering Porter left on November 16, 2017 and Gio wasn't officially hired until December 18, 2017. Many long term decisions about players were being made without having a true coaching philosophy in place, much less input from coaches about potential player options. Portland did make several moves after being eliminated from the playoffs by Houston, starting by announcing the go-forward roster to start 2018: goalkeepers Jake Gleeson, Jeff Attinella & Kendall McIntosh; defenders Marco Farfan, Vytas, Alvas Powell, Zarek Valentin & Chance Myers; center backs Liam Ridgewell, Larrys Mabiala, Roy Miller, Rennico Clarke and Gbenga Arokoyo; defensive midfielders Diego Chara, David Guzman & Lawrence Olum; attacking midfielders Sebastian Blanco, Dairon Asprilla, Diego Valeri (2017 MLS MVP), Darlington Nagbe, Jack Barmby & Victor Arboleda; and strikers Fanendo Adi & Jeremy Ebobisse. Bill Tuiloma and Darren Mattocks were offered 2018 contracts with Portland and Lucas Melano remains on loan, but Amobi Okugo and Ben Zemanski were not retained. Okugo went through the 2017 MLS Re-Entry draft and was not selected thus making him a free agent, while Zemanski was made a free agent once his deal with the Timbers expired. This put the Timbers roster at 24 signed players.

The next move saw Mattocks traded to D.C. United for an international spot, but the biggest shock of the offseason saw Portland trade their first ever MLS Super Draft pick to Atlanta in a record setting deal. Nagbe had asked the Timbers for an increased salary, but Portland decided to move him and Arokoyo to Atlanta United FC for 2018 and 2019 General Allocation Money (available for any salary use), 2018 Targeted Allocation Money (used to reduce salary on selected players) and another international spot totaling $1.65 million. Additional TAM could be included to Portland depending on how well Nagbe performs, but after watching Porter leave, it was tough for many fans to see Nagbe depart. There is nobody better in MLS in my opinion at moving a soccer ball in traffic from box to box than Darlington, and Timbers fans were spoiled to watch his absolute creativity and deftness on a regular basis, but for me, the question has always been will we see him make the leap from really good player to upper echelon. There were glimpses of the talent at times with rocket goals, dizzying passes and aggressive play, but to me, Nagbe's career with the Timbers always seemed to be steps behind where it might have been. Played as a wing early in his career under Spencer in a very direct system, Nagbe appeared to struggle to find comfort in the attack until Wilkinson took over upon Spencer being dismissed, and Darlington could roam more. Reunited under his coach in college, Nagbe alternated between both wings, central attacking and defensive midfielder, but I wondered at points if he was truly in the right spot.

I really am excited to see what Sebastian Blanco can do in 2018.
We saw a more aggressive Nagbe during USMNT duty, but even there at times, it was making safe passes and often disappearing in the offense. Even before Porter left, I had a question of was Nagbe an eventual successor to Valeri's role, or would he continue to play alternating wing and attack centrally when opportunity presented? Now with a new coach, what role would Darlington fill in a revamped offense? Well, Atlanta gave the Timbers 1.65 million reasons to make a move, and with the trade, Portland's roster officially now sits at 23 with the acquisition of Saprissa center back Julio Cascante. Cascante's arrival was fostered by a relationship between the Timbers and Saprissa, several scouting trips by Wilkinson, and the ability to use some of the Targeted Allocation Money to acquire the 24-year old center back. Considering that Portland's center back core consists of a newly acquired player that joined midseason (Mabiala), their best center back who has been consistently knicked up with injuries (Ridgewell), a guy who suffered an Achilles injury during the postseason (Miller), a player who couldn't stay healthy enough to play for either Timbers or T2 (Clarke) and a player who was originally signed for defensive midfield depth (Olum), Cascante's addition is huge. And I expect there to be more defensive additions as well now that Savarese is fully on board.

Nagbe's departure shocked me for several reasons - most notably, he was one of the longest tenured players on the side and there were no inklings that he wanted to leave that were indicated. He's become identified with the team very closely, especially now since being added to the USMNT roster regularly. Having a young family here as well that had established roots, I honestly thought Nagbe was a Timbers lifer until the trade was officially done. The big question in Atlanta won't be if the offense will score goals, as they have a collective of strikers that would scare most sides, but what will Nagbe bring to the attack if the coaches can inspire him enough to display it? Atlanta essentially needs a creative box to box midfielder for distribution, and in that respect, Nagbe will fit that role very well. If they need for him to contribute more goals, however, that remains to be seen whether he can do more than score the highlight reel variety efforts. Look, I'm not disputing that Darlington has talent, that's never been a question, but whether he is able to put all of it together to dominate a match. In my opinion, we only saw glimpses of him doing that in Portland during his tenure. When he was fully on and engaged, it was a treat to watch but I honestly wished we would have seen it more.

This view will be dramatically different coming soon.
The attention now turns to the second week of January, and with Savarese's introduction happening, the next few weeks include this year's MLS Super Draft and MLS Combine. Los Angeles FC is joining MLS for 2018, and while Portland escaped the expansion draft in not losing a player, the addition of a 23rd club altered the 2018 MLS schedule slightly. All teams will play 34 matches; Portland will play each Eastern Conference team once, and every Western Conference side twice (1 at home, 1 on the road) except for one side where they play a third time. For the Timbers, the schedulers gave them the Seattle Sounders FC as their selected team, so the Sounders will visit Providence Park twice in 2018 while Portland ventures to C-Lunk just once in 2018. Due to stadium construction, the Timbers will play their first 5 matches on the road, but get a very favorable draw in late July through August of home matches. There is some significant travel late in August with 2 midweek matches and 2 cross country trips between August 15 and September 1, but otherwise the layout seems very balances. The Timbers have just 3 Wednesday matches all year with most matches falling on Saturday and Sunday, so most fans should be able to watch either in person or on TV. I anticipate all matches will be televised, and at this point, 12 of the Timbers' 34 matches are on national TV (ESPN, ESPN2, Fox, Fox Sports1 or Univision) so finding them should be relatively easy. Honestly, I'm excited for this coming season and can't wait to see what happens over the next few weeks.