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.

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