Bumps and Bruises Will Define Portland Timbers’ Early Slate
Friday, March 06, 2015
The Portland Timbers kick off the 2015 campaign Saturday night at Providence Park against Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Real Salt Lake. Unfortunately for Portland, things don’t get much easier over the first two months of the season. Of the Timbers’ first 9 games, only 2 are against teams that weren’t in the playoffs last year.
Early season struggles doomed the Timbers last year, with a total of 9 points gained (and only 1 win) from their first 10 games. This set them so far behind the pack that they were unable to recover, despite posting one of the best records in the league for the remainder of the season.
Unfortunately, this season has the possibility of starting in a similar fashion when the difficulty of the schedule is combined with the substantial injury issues facing the team.
The Timbers will be without their best player (Diego Valeri – Torn ACL) and their captain (Will Johnson – broken leg), for at least the first 6-8 weeks of the season. And just to add insult to injury, Johnson’s replacement, Ben Zemanski, tore his ACL in the preseason and is likely lost for the year. Coach Caleb Porter may have to adjust his tried-and-true system of deploying 2 defensive midfielders in front of the back line. While stalwart vanguard Diego Chara is back for another campaign and will almost certainly again be among the league leaders in tackles (and fouls called), every other option to pair with Chara is either lacking in experience (Biesler, Fochive) or youth and pace (Jewsbury).
Paradoxically, the biggest impact of losing a defensive midfielder like Johnson might actually be felt on the attack. Both Johnson and Chara are true box-to-box players – effective in defense, but willing and able to press the attack when the time calls for it. Whoever is tapped to replace Johnson will be unlikely to factor into the attack in the same way, for fear of finding themselves out of position and unable to recover. So, while there may be a slight dip in the overall quality of defense, the larger impact of Johnson’s absence will be increased pressure on Nagbe, Adi, and the rest of the Portland attack.
He led the team with 11 goals last season, with seemingly all of them coming in critical situations where the game hung in the balance. If that weren’t enough, he also led the team in assists, netting 14 throughout the season. At times last year, he WAS the Portland attack. For Portland to put the ball in the back of the net, a number of players must step up – but most importantly, Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi.
With Valeri keying the attack from an attacking midfield position, Nagbe was often placed on the wing, tasked with breaking down opponents off the dribble and threatening with his speed. While Valeri rehabs, Nagbe will need to take on a more central role, dominating the ball and collapsing the defense to free up others. Whether he is able to do this on a consistent basis will go a long way in determining how Portland is able to weather the absence of Valeri. Along with Nagbe, Fanendo Adi will have to be a man possessed in his role as the target striker. Adi’s size and deft touch can change an entire defense, forcing both central backs to be aware of Adi’s position at all times and often forcing double-teams. If he is playing well, Adi can single-handedly open lanes for teammates that can be exploited, often resulting in goals. If you’re able to get to a Timbers game in person this season, take 5 minutes and just watch Adi.
Forget the ball, just watch him and how the defense reacts to his movements. Yes, we all wish he would finish a few more of the chances he gets, but after those 5 minutes, I’m sure you will appreciate what he brings to the team and how much easier he makes the game for his teammates.
Portland faces a huge challenge as they open the 2015 season. They are missing two of their most important players and play what is arguably the hardest opening stretch in the league. For the Timbers to come out with playoff and championship aspirations intact will require a total team effort. New goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey must team with Liam Ridgewell and offseason acquisition Nat Borchers (who is already challenging for best beard in Portland) to quickly find chemistry and cohesiveness in a re-worked defense. Caleb Porter must decide how to compensate for the loss of the team’s emotional leader and captain in the holding midfield. And Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi must take on more responsibility for the Timbers’ attack until Valeri and his magic return to the pitch. The goal is difficult, but possible: hold on and scrape out enough points to keep their head above water until Valeri and Johnson can return. If Portland can do so, the rest of MLS might spend the remainder of the season wishing they had knocked the Timbers out while they had the chance.
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