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.