Soccer is a pretty simple game when you get down to the basics; you must score more goals than your opponent and give up less goals than your opponent in each game and throughout the season to be successful. Last season the Portland Timbers did not do that.
In 2012 the Timbers scored 34 goals, second worst in the league, and conceded 56, third worst in the league. It’s simple math. A -22 goal differential left the Timbers at the bottom of the pack last season. The Timbers needed to make some changes. With some of the best fan support in the league, including the well known Timbers Army, everyone is hoping the new season will provide a different result.
Following two disappointing campaigns in Major League Soccer (MLS) in which the team failed to qualify for the playoffs, General Manager Gavin Wilkinson and the Timbers were the most active team in MLS this offseason, looking to completely revamp their roster and staff.
At the top of the list of changes is the arrival of new head coach Caleb Porter. Former head coach John Spencer’s humor and emotional style made him a fan and player favorite. Unfortunately that translated to very few wins and a poor record away from Jeld-Wen Stadium. Porter had been the coach at the University of Akron where he built a successful program and won a National Title in 2010. Porter brings a
cerebral style, a new tactical system and a reputation as a teacher of young players. In the preseason his presence has already been established as the Timbers are playing a more ball control style with lots of short passes and possession. This looks like a completely new team. On the down side, Porter does not have much experience coaching professional players; his only previous opportunity was as the head coach of the U.S. Olympic team which failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London. The big question for the Timbers is whether Porter can translate his success at the collegiate level to the pros.
The roster of players has changed considerably. Gone from last year is fiery Scottish forward Kris Boyd. It also appears that rising star Bright Dike is gone for the season. Dike, who came on last season to start the final eleven game sand score five goals, was expected to fight for a starting forward spot until he tore an ACL. The Timbers have made what look to be upgrades at several other positions while getting rid of numerous players from last season.
The Big news in the offseason was the signing of Argentine midfielder Diego Valeri. Valeri looks to give the Timbers a key missing piece from the last two seasons, a true playmaking central midfielder. Valeri has already wowed the crowds in preseason games with his vision, creativity, and passes into open space. Also new to the team is forward Ryan Johnson, who scored twelve goals in his rookie season with the San Jose and most recently played for the lowly Toronto franchise. The Jamaican International scored three goals against the Earthquakes in the opening game of the Timbers Preseason Tournament last Saturday and has raised expectations that he will be the goal scoring answer in Porter’s system.
The last minute signing of central defender Mikael Silvestre gives the Timbrs much needed depth and experience. The Timbers defense looked to be a big question mark again this year. Last year the back line continually gave up big goals at inopportune times and had difficulty closing out games. New outside backs Michael Harrington and Ryan Miller look to be an improvement over last years’ starters. First round draft pick from last year, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, looks like he may be ready for a starting spot; Columbian Hanyer Mosquera and “Futty” Danso will provide depth, although Porter was still tinkering with his roster through the final games of the reseason. Starter from last season, David Horst, seems to be on the outs in Porter’s system. Silvestre, who trialed with the team earlier in preseason and looked solid, will bring an impressive resume when he receives his work visa and arrives for real. At thirty-five he is a veteran of seventeen professional seasons, including ten with the English Premier League’s Manchester United where he won a Champions League title. He also has had stops in several other top flight European leagues with some big name clubs including Arsenal, Italy’s Seire A with Internazionale and the German Bundesliga with Werder Bremen. A French International, Silvestre has been capped forty times and represented France in the 2006 World Cup. Although now step slower, Silvestre provides the Timbers with a player that knows how to defend and win.
Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts is back but will miss some time this summer as he helps his Jamaican National team try to qualify for the 2014 World Cup; new backup Milos Kocic gives the team a veteran to fill in.
The midfield is a strength for the team. Newcomer Will Johnson looks like he may have earned a starting spot as a defensive midfielder. Columbian Diego Chara is a fan favorite who returns in his role as the tough tackler. Youngster Kalif Alhassan is a wizard with the ball and under Porter may have finally earned a spot in the starting eleven. Ben Zemanski, a former Akron player for Porter was recently acquired to add depth along side veteran Sal Zizzo. And of course Valeri adds flair in the center of the pitch.
At forward watch for twenty year old Jose Valencia to fight for playing time. The youngster arrived full of potential last season but had to miss the entire season after it was discovered he needed knee surgery. Valencia has impressed in the preseason and looks like he could give defenses fits with his combination of speed, size and touch on the ball.
The big question this year is third year player Darlington Nagbe. The second overall pick in the
2011 draft, Nagbe is a former Akron player who helped lead Porter’s college club to that national title in 2010. Nagbe arrived in Portland with great fanfare but has yet to reach his full potential. He has shown flashes of brilliance and scored several highlight reel goals, including the MLS Goal of the Year in his rookie season, but can disappear from the run of play for entire games . This could be a make or break year for Nagbe. He plays as a cross between an attacking midfielder and a withdrawn forward but has yet to find his natural position in MLS. Can his former college coach Porter find a way to bring out the best in Nagbe?
With a completely revamped roster, a new head coach and a new attitude, the Portland Timbers seem poised to change their fortunes and make a run at the MLS playoffs. The season regular season opens with the Timbers at home on March 3 against the New York Red Bulls.
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