Amid an otherwise forgettable campaign in 2012, the Portland Timbers did manage to wrest away the Cascadia Cup from the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps to bring home at least one piece of hardware last season. Entering their third year of MLS existence, the Timbers experienced a sophomore slump last summer and will need to both improve defensively and find more goal scoring if they are to have a shot at their first playoff berth.
After 2012 yielded a point a game, Portland’s 8-16-10 record an eight-point drop from 2011, the Timbers have made several sweeping changes to both their roster and support staff. Out went manager John Spencer at midseason; Gavin Wilkinson, the team’s coach during its USL days, returned last July to finish the season as the team’s interim manager. In the offseason the Timbers brought in new coach Caleb Porter to try to lead the team to its first taste of MLS success.
Porter, who was the head coach during the University of Akron’s 2010 run to the NCAA Championship, will have some familiar faces on the roster. His former Zips stars, Darlington Nagbe and Michael Nanchoff, should play major roles in the rebuilding project. Out goes one Designated Player (Kris Boyd), in comes another (Diego Valeri), and former Manchester United defender Mikael Silvestre also joins the Rose City side for what is likely his professional swan song. Can Porter, who has never coached at the professional level before, cohesively combine the Timbers’ talents to challenge in the West?
The Timbers started their preseason in Tucson, winning matches 3-1 against the Colorado Rapids and getting a Silvestre goal in a 1-0 over their Pacific Northwest rivals from Seattle. Those victories bookended a 1-0 defeat to Sporting Kansas City, and Portland concluded their time in Tucson with a 3-1 win over tournament host FC Tucson of the USL Premier Development League to finish 3-1-0 for their time in Arizona.
Returning to Portland, the Timbers hosted a preseason tournament at JELD-WEN Field that featured the San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas and Swedish side AIK Stockholm. A Ryan Johnson hat trick guided the Timbers to a 3-3 draw over San Jose, but Portland would fall 1-0 to FC Dallas in their final battle before the season against MLS competition. Their final preseason friendly saw the Timbers rebound for a 1-1 draw against AIK, Harrington nailing a late equalizer to prevent the Swedes from returning home with a victory and letting Portland finish the preseason with a 3-2-2 record.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
Donovan Ricketts, who arrived from the Montreal Impact last August in a straight-up trade for former Portland goalkeeper Troy Perkins, is the main man protecting the goalmouth for the Timbers. The Jamaican international was part of the 2011 MLS Cup run by the LA Galaxy, and with a full season in Portland he can help solidify what was a shaky position in 2012. His backup will be former Toronto FC starter Milos Kocic, who was part of the trade that sent Joe Bendik away and brought Kocic and forward Ryan Johnson to Portland. The third option off the bench will be one of two 22-year-olds: either American David Meves or New Zealand youngster Jake Gleeson.
At the back end, Silvestre will likely be a depth addition to bolster a fairly deep if inexperienced unit. The strength is on the flanks, where Ryan Miller returns to MLS after four seasons in Sweden and Michael Harrington arrived over the winter in a trade with Sporting Kansas City. Chris Taylor (MCL) will provide fullback depth when he returns. In central defense, the problems become more drastic. Both Hanyer Mosquera (hip flexor) and David Horst (groin strain) have been struggling to rehab injuries, leaving the opportunity open for 2012 SuperDraft first-round selection Andrew Jean-Baptiste to step into a starting role. While the first-choice selections heal, either Mamadou Danso or Dylan Tucker-Gangnes could be pushed into service if Silvestre isn’t match ready.
The midfield is another spot in transition. Team captain Jack Jewsbury continues to battle hamstring problems and might not be ready for the season opener. In Porter’s 4-3-3 system, the likely starters will be Will Johnson and Diego Chara flanking new Argentine midfielder Diego Valeri. Valeri, on loan from hometown side Lanús, offers Porter a possession-grabbing catalyst for his system. Porter has shown a proclivity for pushing Kalif Alhassan into the front line, so depth will come from younger players like Steven Evans and Mobi Fehr and scrappy vets like Nanchoff, Ben Zemanski and Sal Zizzo.
In attack, the loss of Bright Dike and Brent Richards to torn ACLs has left Porter shuffling lineups to find his most productive combination. Darlington Nagbe, Porter’s former Akron star, could have a breakthrough campaign in his third MLS season. Alhassan should join him up front, with the duo expected to flank new acquisition Ryan Johnson. Danny Mwanga, the first overall pick in the 2010 SuperDraft, will also get a look after his trade last season from the Philadelphia Union. Young strikers Jose Valencia and Sebastián Rincón provide further depth.
Portland has proven to have one of the most enthusiastic fan bases in American soccer, predating their entry to MLS. Can Porter acclimate quickly to the pro game and give those fans more to cheer in 2013? The Timbers have to survive the rash of injuries that have thinned their ranks and hope that youngsters emerge as superstars in the new coach’s system. There should be more goals at JELD-WEN this season, but the Timbers will also have to do better in the defensive third if they are to contend for their first-ever playoff spot.