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What To Watch For From The Portland Timbers

Thursday, February 19, 2015


The warning signs were going off long before the Portland Timbers' 2014 early-season swoon was in full, devastating swing. 

You're sick of this story by now, but the fact that it took the Timbers almost two full months to win their first game last season ultimately derailed not only the team's playoff chances, but also the chemistry and overall makeup of the roster. 

You could see Portland's disastrous 2014 start coming as early as the preseason tournament last February -- it was just that with the title of defending Western Conference champion slung over their shoulder, no one wanted to believe that something was very wrong with the Timbers.

Yes, it was only preseason. But with their first team, the Timbers posted a pair of lackluster results -- a 1-0 loss to San Jose and a 1-1 draw with Vancouver -- without scoring a single goal from the run of play.

Portland did not win a single game over the course of the week, also drawing against Jamaican side Portmore United. 

On offense, the team's spacing was a disaster. Without the injured Rodney Wallace, and trying to integrate Gaston Fernandez, the harmony that made the team so successful in 2013 was gone.

Fernandez and Diego Valeri were occupying the same spaces and squeezing each other out of the offense, there was no real wide presence, and no target forward to anchor the team either.

On defense, Norberto Paparatto was obviously struggling, both to communicate and get settled with his new team. 

These problems sound familiar because it was exactly what killed the Timbers in March and April last year. The preseason tournament didn't lie, and the deflated feeling fans walking out of Providence Park felt after those games would have been angrier had it been competitive games instead of friendlies.

It shouldn't have been a shock that the Timbers didn't just magically turn it on for opening day against Philadelphia. That drab 1-1 draw looked a hell of a lot like the drab 1-1 draw with Vancouver that closed the preseason.

The moral? Pay attention to what is now called the Simple Invitational. It's more than likely that the Timbers will give real insight into how they'll look in the first part of the MLS season in the next few weeks -- and as we know now more than ever, the first part of the season is vital.

Here's what to watch for when the Timbers take on the 'Caps, Chicago, and Stabaek.

1. Balance

Caleb Porter and Gavin Wilkinson were very intentional in keeping the core of their team together, hoping that familiarity will breed competence. Since this team's projected opening day front six is virtually unchanged, the Timbers should be very well spaced in the attack. Everyone should know their roles.

This team is integrating new pieces at two positions, center-back and goalkeeper, that are, overall, two of the easiest places to add new players. Portland should play well at home in this tournament. They should hum.  

2. La Gata, In The Spotlight

Gaston Fernandez did just about as well as he could have in rocky circumstances in his first year in MLS, considering he was mostly coming off the bench and rarely played his natural position. 

But with Diego Valeri out of the lineup for at least the first six weeks of the season, Fernandez will have space, plenty of the ball, and plenty of freedom to shape the offense. 

Whether Fernandez lines up as a second forward or true #10 matters less than his overall comfort level wherever he plays. Foreign players, especially those who don't come in speaking the language, always improve markedly in the second years, and the sense is that Fernandez has a level he rarely hit in a stop and start debut season. 

3. A New Goalkeeper

Donovan Ricketts' 2014 was criminally underrated -- he kept the Timbers in a multitude of games behind a circus defense that let him down time and time again. In terms of shot-stopping, only Nick Rimando would have been a clear upgrade last year.

Adam Larsen Kwarasey was brought in to do all the other stuff better -- distribution, playing with his feet, working in the air -- and that's fine. But Kwarasey has to prove that he do what is obviously most important for a goalkeeper: Make saves. Everything else is gravy.

4. Goalscoring

The Timbers' leading 2014 scorer was Diego Valeri, who directly played a part in 25 league goals last season. But Valeri is out to start 2015, as is Will Johnson, who is good for about eight goals per year himself in the Timbers' offense.

Portland also got a lot of goals from Gaston Fernandez and Maxi Urruti last year, and neither should be counted upon to be around double digits in goals again. Both had fluke goal-scoring years last season.

Caleb Porter isn't necessarily worried about the goal breakdown, but the fact is that the Timbers don't have a lot of pop in their prospective opening day lineup. What's clear is that in March and April, the goals will have to come from different places. 

Darlington Nagbe clearly needs to score, and it he can get a couple of goals in this tournament, it could be a sign of things to come. Rodney Wallace needs to score too, and Fanendo Adi has twenty goals in him if he can find the type of game-to-game consistency that was about the only thing missing from his 2014 second-half.

As long as the central midfield is Ben Zemanski and Diego Chara, they'll be a lot of pressure on the front four to score enough goals until Valeri and Johnson return. 

5. Enjoy It -- This Might Be All You See Of The Timbers For A While

The Simple Invitational will be played for sure, but if there's no new CBA in place in the next few weeks, the season will not start on time. Instead, MLS will face their first true lockout.

A similar scenario unfolded before the 2010 season, with the two sides -- helped by an arbitrator -- struck a deal just before the deadline to start the season on time. 

The disagreements this time around are over big, seminal issues like player free agency. Obviously, both sides have a ton to lose from even the shortest lockout. But it's harder now, with MLS in a sort of purgatory between being a true big-time league and a second-rate, safety-first outfit, to get a deal done than ever before.

Enjoy the Timbers while you have them. Because if there isn't considerable movement on the negotiating front, March 7th won't be the kind of day any of us have hoped for since the schedule was released more than a month ago. 

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


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