Thursday, February 28, 2019

2019 MLS Season Preview - Uh, Yeah, The Season Starts in 3 Days

The cats have been busy preparing for the 2019 MLS season in their own way.
It's hard to believe the 2019 MLS season is just 3 days away. All offseasons have their own level of drama and uncertainty, but for me, this break between the Portland Timbers last match, a 2 to 0 loss in the 2018 MLS Cup championship to Atlanta United, and their 2019 opener when they visit the Colorado Rapids in Commerce City, CO, has been random. The Timbers had to make player decisions hours after their loss in MLS Cup, followed up by the myriad of player drafts and the dozens of player rumors around who will join the team core under Coach Gio Savarese. Part of my offseason ritual is to review the previous year in terms of my writings, other posts, my wife's photos, and whatever other information is out there to really capture the essence of the season. As much as I enjoyed the MLS Cup run last year, these activities were severely compressed - albeit for a good reason.

I think other factors contributing to the oddities of the offseason were the stadium construction and the preseason training schedule. Due to the stadium expansion at Providence Park to add more seating to the stadium's east deck, the Timbers didn't have their usual pre-season tournament locally, although rumors say the tourney could likely return as soon as next year. With limited spacing and the team's schedule putting the team on the road for their first 12 matches of the season, Savarese and his crew spent a few introductory days in Portland in January once training camp opened, but they ventured south for their activities. For the first time ever, Portland spent 10 days in Costa Rica playing 2 pre-season matches before heading up to Tucson, Arizona for their usual appearances in the Mobil Mini Sun Cup for 4 additional matches. Unless you traveled to Costa Rica or Arizona to watch the club, there hasn't been much ability to see the 2019 version of the Timbers up close yet. Now throw in the extended road trip to start the year, and it could be understandable why the buzz of the new season hasn't hit fever pitch quite yet.

It doesn't exactly look like this anymore. I hope to get a closer look soon.
Another contributing factor to the muted buzz could have been the player additions after that were spaced out over time, but were very focused on selected areas. Portland immediately announced the additions of Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano from their Timbers 2 affiliate in mid-December, but things didn't pick up until the team added Aljaz Ivacic and Claude Dielna in separate deals in mid-January. Rumors persisted the team was pursuing several options for a designated player level forward to augment their attack, but none of the mentioned names materialized into a deal before the roster compliance date of March 1 for the 2019 season. Portland did add depth in their defensive line by securing Jorge Moreira on loan for the entire season, but they will start the year with 28 signed players out of the 30 allowed by roster rules. The scouting team, led by newly minted Technical Director Ned Grabavoy and GM/President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson, has turned their attention to the summer transfer window to find and hopefully secure targets to help for the second half of the season.

Goalkeepers (4) Jeff Attinella, Kendall McIntosh, Aljaz Ivacic, Steve Clark
Fullbacks (4): Marco Farfan, Jorge Villafana, Zarek Valentin, Jorge Moreira
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: De Vera, 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, Moreira, Paredes, Polo, Tuiloma, Zambrano

In looking at the various parts of the roster and thinking of a true season preview, especially since we are just days away from the season, I thought I would take some moments and break down the roster and provide my thoughts about the current mix. Granted, Grabavoy and Wilkinson have a lot more experience in player acquisition and they grasp the labyrinth of MLS player acquisition rules better than most people, but having followed this team since 2004 and covering it since 2008, I have some perspective in watching soccer - good, bad, or otherwise. I try to mix in some optimism with humor and practicality, because at the end of the day, we are watching people playing a game and while the results are important, it's not life or death by any means. Talent, depth and fitness are big components of a successful team, but it also takes chemistry, attitude, hard work, fortitude and some fortunate bounces - which are difficult to control. In my opinion, the Timbers have done a better than average job of replacing key position losses, but they also need some players to step up in a huge way to fill some other gaps.

He's really, really good. And he's one of us.
Goalkeepers: This is Jeff's team, and we're all watching the greatness of a player that has finally found a home, a job and some confidence. Attinella was very good filling in occasionally during his days at Real Salt Lake, but he's outlasted other competition to seize the starting keeper job here. The only thing that has kept him out of the lineup is injury, which ironically enough is how Clark ended up in Portland during the 2018 season. Portland made Clark an offer to remain here for 2019, and his experience and ability to fill in is a huge asset. Ivacic is young and raw, but outlets like his demeanor and presence in goal, while McIntosh was a big reason for success for Timbers 2 in 2018 with his acrobatic goalkeeping. The thought is that McIntosh would be loaned out for 2019 with T2 covered in goal and Ivacic being the third keeper behind Attinella and Clark, but after suffering a leg injury, it appears Kendall will remain in Portland for the time being. Keeping is a huge asset and strength for the Timbers, and it should stay that way with this bunch.

Fullbacks: I tend not to criticize what some outlets call "the most important signing of the offseason" in adding Moreira to the defense, although I do think it is a great addition to the team. Yes, I realize that once Alvas Powell and his erratic crosses were traded to FC Cincinnati during the offseason, the Timbers were lacking some depth behind the trio of Villafana, Valentin and Farfan. Getting Moreira gives them another huge option on both sides of the ball, especially if Villafana is busy with the USMNT or Savarese wants to rotate the club. Valentin is easily the most intelligent defender we have available, but it's also known that his foot speed isn't top flight in covering speedy wings, either. I thought Atlanta was able to expose Zarek at certain points, and that will likely be an issue at points this year, but I don't question his heart or intelligence to find ways to help the team. With T2 not having any available options to call up, I think we have this foursome to cover the defensive wings and they will be better than average in comparison with other teams.

Best defender in 2018 and a top scoring option for Portland all year? Yes.
Center Backs: There is a big shift here with the release of Liam Ridgewell, who returned back to his native England to sign with Hull City in the Premiership. His partner, Larrys Mabiala, is back and I agree with recent comments from Timbers CEO Merritt Paulson that Mabiala was easily the best defender in MLS in 2018 by a lot. Having him back is huge, and adding an experienced option with Dielna is also a solid move. The future, however, is the pairing of Tuiloma and Cascante, who are easily the most talented center backs on the roster albeit younger and more raw. I anticipate we will see a foursome rotation with Jadama about as additional depth to keep the group fresh, but Mabiala will be the anchor of this group once again.

Defensive Midfielder: Chara is not a cyborg or alien, so at some point, the team needs to figure out an attack plan when the diminutive destroyer isn't available. The Timbers record without Chara is very dreadful - I could say worse, but I don't want the blog to be slapped with a penalty from dropping a curse word or three - so for me, this was a huge part of what I expected to be addressed in the offseason. I like what Paredes did to start 2018 with the Timbers until he returned to the bench midseason and really wasn't used late, what Zambrano did in a similar role for T2 in 2018, Williamson is considered a possibility for this role, and Tuiloma has said this is his best position on the pitch, but for now, the only experience here is Guzman. It's not a crisis by any means, but it's an area that needs addressing. To me, Paredes is the most logical answer to solve the riddle if the Timbers can fully acquire his rights.

I don't think he's bionic, but it would explain a lot of his stellar play. 
Attacking Midfielder: Valeri and Blanco have formed a wonderful strike force over the past 2 seasons, and it's been fun to watch for Timbers fans. However, the same situation that applies to Chara applies here although the Timbers have a few more options here. Polo is now fully a Timber and is usually the third wheel, but Portland also added Loria and kept Asprilla and Flores to provide an interesting bunch of options. Asprilla has raw speed and the potential for greatness as we saw in the playoffs, but he can also disappear just as easily. Loria has been impressive in pre-season and was a huge part of success with T2, while Flores can fill in across the board in spot minutes or the occasional start. I wouldn't be totally surprised if the Timbers added a player here during the summer transfer window, but right now, they have some intriguing options to roll out.

Forwards: This was the area of most concern for fans, especially after Portland traded away Fanendo Adi to FC Cincinnati in the 2018 season and chose not to extend the loan for Samuel Armenteros. Portland had talked with several designated player options to add at striker, but couldn't come to terms with them - and I'm actually kind of glad. It would be a rare choice for a DP to come here and not supplant the best success story of 2018 for Portland in the emergence of Ebobisse. Yes, Jeremy still has a lot to learn about the position and he needs to bulk up, but the talent, skill and smarts are there if given time to grow. Behind him is Melano, who seems hungry to prove he belongs in MLS, and Langsdorf, who was very good at T2. Inexperienced group? Yes, they are raw. Talented? For sure. Do we need another option? I think we will eventually, but it will be worth it to see what the youngsters can do during the opening road trip.

How does Gio follow up 2018? I'm sure he has a plan. Or several more.
Coaching Staff: Savarese brought in his own coaches last year although Sean McCauley remained on staff from the Porter era while other coaches were shuffled about. McCauley left midseason to head to Orlando City and the team brought up Miles Joseph to fill the role. Overall, I thought Gio and his crew had an amazing 2018 to take a existing core of players and adjust their approach and tactics. You could tell early in the season there were some problems in adjustment, but the team rallied to put forth a long unbeaten streak until August came and smacked them back to reality. The team pulled it together to put forth an incredible run to the finals, and the sky is certainly the limit here. Portland will need some players to step up and fill roles in big ways, but they are certainly capable of doing that. This staff has shown they can get the maximum from their players, and I don't see that changing.

Predictions: For me, the biggest challenges to 2019 for the Timbers are keeping focus during the long road trip to start the year, and the lengthy home stand later in 2019. Portland has traditionally been a strong home side and average on the road, but with the long road trip, the Timbers have to ensure they don't dig themselves a huge hole before the calendar hits June. Home matches have gone the Timbers way over the years, but Portland shouldn't totally count on running the table at home either just to secure the playoff. I'd like to see the Timbers sit with 15 to 20 points over the first 12 before they get home, which really should be achievable. While I have looked at the other clubs at some length, I haven't fully being able to grasp who should be good or bad for this year, but I can make some universal statements based on what I can see. Seattle needs Jordan Morris to return and be the player he was, otherwise, the offense is a tire fire. Vancouver will be interesting if they allow Marc Dos Santos to fully unleash this side, but it will be better than conservative bunch ball. Atlanta will learn really quickly how difficult it is to defend a Cup; yes, they ended up with some good talent to add to their attack, but they were ravaged by player losses. FC Cincinnati will be better than people think, but they will struggle to acclimate as most expansion sides do. Minnesota United has quietly added some good pieces and have a nice new stadium, but depth is a problem. The Galaxy will try to hold their star collective together to threaten the West, and it will be entertaining, but they will fall short. The West will be chasing Sporting Kansas City, who still have the best roster from top to bottom as long as they keep this group together. It's good to see Caleb Porter return and Columbus keep the Crew, but I can't see them overtaking the Red Bulls, NYCFC or Atlanta in the East. I'm still trying to figure out what Orlando is doing, and I might be doing that into August at this rate.

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