2013 Portland Preview: New faces, same big expectations
2012 record: 8-16-10 (34 points); 34 GF / 56 GA (-22 GD)
Over the next two weeks, MLSsoccer.com will preview each of the 19 teams in Major League Soccer, beginning with the clubs that brought up the bottom of the table in 2012 and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. This is part one of two previewing Portland's 2013 season. You can find Part 2 here.
Setting the Scene
Oh, what a glorious year 2012 promised to be.
Under the headlines of two major offseason acquisitions in Kris Boyd, the Scottish Premier League’s all-time leading scorer, and Colombian phenom José Valencia, Timbers fans, staff and even owner Merritt Paulson seemed to have eyes for one thing: MLS Cup.
But after a season-opening victory, Portland won just one more of their next eight games – the precursor to struggles that cost former head coach John Spencer his job. They couldn’t find the back of the net, finishing second worst in the league in goals scored. And the couldn’t defend, finishing third worst in goals allowed. Their futility hit a crescendo in an unceremonious defeat at the hands of amateur club Cal FC in the US Open Cup in late May.
Boyd, despite scoring a team-leading seven goals, was a disappointment and since jettisoned for 2013. All leading up to another roster remake and high hopes under new head coach Caleb Porter.
In and Out
IN: D Michael Harrington (12/3: trade from Sporting KC); M Will Johnson (12/3: trade from Real Salt Lake); F Ryan Johnson (12/12: trade from Toronto); GK Milos Kocic (12/12: trade from Toronto) ; D/M Mobi Fehr (12/18: weighted lottery); M Steven Evans (1/8: Homegrown) ; M Diego Valeri (1/10: loan from Lanús); D Ryan Miller (1/21: transfer from Halmstads) ; D Dylan Tucker-Gangnes (2/6: SuperDraft); M Ben Zemanski (2/13: trade from Chivas USA); M Michael Nanchoff (2/13: rights acquired from Vancouver)
OUT: M Freddie Braun (11/19: option declined) ; M Charles Renken (11/19: option declined); D Ian Hogg (11/19: option declined); D Kosuke Kimura (12/3: traded to New York) ; D Eric Brunner (12/3: traded to Houston); M Lovel Palmer (12/3: option declined); D Steve Purdy (12/3: option declined) ; D Steve Smith (12/6: option declined); GK Joe Bendik (12/12: trade to Toronto); F Robbie Findley (1/16: rights traded to RSL); F Mike Fucito (1/17; trade to San Jose); F Kris Boyd (2/1: contract terminated) ; M Eric Alexander (2/11: trade to New York); D Jonathan Bornstein (2/13: rights traded to Chivas USA)
Star Attraction: Diego Valeri
Called a “game-changer” by Porter, the Argentinean midfielder will be the centerpiece of the Timbers attack this year. Acquired earlier this offseason on loan from his country’s first-division side Club Atlético Lanús, the new Designated Player has all the markings of the do-it-all midfield creator needed to run Porter’s possession-based system. The 26-year-old is gifted on the ball and can see the game unfold two or three steps ahead, Porter said. And anytime a top-flight Argentinean player in his prime arrives in MLS, it’s nothing but a good thing.
Unsung Hero: Diego Chara
He may not feature in the sexy statistical categories, but Chara is undoubtedly one of the team’s most important players. The diminutive defensive midfielder was third on the team in minutes played last year, started all 28 of the games he appeared in and his 72 fouls set the MLS club record. His 10 yellow cards also led the team, so you know the fiery Colombian will be there in a scrum.
Ready for Primetime: Darlington Nagbe
Entering his third year, there are some who by now would have expected the supremely talented Nagbe to be the team’s star attraction. But there’s still work left for the 22-year-old midfielder. He led the team in minutes played last year and was second with six goals. More importantly he continued to show flashes of brilliant play such as a two-goal performance against Real Salt Lake on March 31 or three straight games with a goal during a 10-day stretch in August. But then inconsistencies crept in: namely going goalless in the season’s final nine games. Now under Porter, his former college coach, a lot more is expected.
Storylines to Watch
1. How will Porter adapt to the professional game? The new Timbers boss arrived to talk of his cerebral approach to the game and beautiful possession style. His body of work as a head coach includes building a dynasty at the University of Akron, but also the disappointment of last year's failed Olympic qualifying campaign. Porter's wearing a target – no doubt about it.
2. Will Nagbe break out? Soccer fans in the Rose City have been waiting on bated breath for the young phenom to rise to the top of the league’s pool of stars. He certainly has it in him. And as a withdrawn forward or winger in Porter’s system, the club will expect him to bag a bunch of goals this year.
3. Will Portland lose their loyal fan base if the wins don’t come? Timbers supporters stomached a lot last year. And while Paulson has muted expectations this time around, the truth remains that there will be a lot of pressure to field a winner in 2013. Bringing in Porter, Valeri and a host of other seasoned veterans from winning clubs has only added to another year of high hopes.
What He Said
“There’s no doubt the talent on that roster is there, but talent is such a small part of winning in MLS games. It’s hardly even worth talking about. It’s more about teamwork and hard work and those kinds of things, those things get you results in MLS.”
– New Portland midfielder Will Johnson
If Everything Goes Right
In a perfect world, all the pieces added this offseason come together under Porter’s watchful eye and the team plays dangerous, attacking soccer. But that's almost secondary to defensive improvement.
After the 2012 disaster, general manager Gavin Wilkinson said this year’s team would at the very least be tougher, work harder and be more professional. And in the players added, they’ve done that on paper. The players acclimating themselves may prevent Portland from a top-three finish in the Western Conference, but if it eventually translates on the field, Portland will be celebrating their first MLS playoff appearance come fall.