Tinker toys: Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter excited by "flexibility" offered by attacking options

Caleb Porter in the rain - Sept. 29, 2013

Photo Credit: 
Craig Mitchelldyer / PortlandTimbers.com

PORTLAND, Ore. – As seamless as the Portland Timbers’ preseason may have been, their last game of preparation Saturday in the finale of the Rose City Invitational was the first time head coach Caleb Porter got to see his first-choice players on the field at once.

Offseason surgery kept playmaker Diego Valeri sidelined until the tournament opener Feb. 23 against the San Jose Earthquakes, a game that midfielder and captain Will Johnson missed due to illness.

Even then, Valeri played sparingly after coming on as a late substitute.

But with the Porter’s first-choice crew together – namely the quadruple-headed attack of Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, newly acquired Gastón Fernández and Maximilliano Urruti – it offered a glimpse into just how dangerous Portland could be this season heading into their opener at home Saturday against the Philadelphia Union (10:30 pm ET, watch on MLS Live).

“There’s a lot of flexibility,” Porter said after the game. “From game to game we can really change the pieces in those front four spots to give some different dimensions of the game. That’s exciting for me to tinker with that.”

Porter said there’s “no question” that this year’s team has more firepower than the 2013 group that won the MLS Western Conference regular-season crown and finished as one of the league’s highest scoring sides. On Saturday, Porter featured Nagbe, Valeri and Fernández in a line of three underneath the striker Urruti, with Valeri and Fernández trading off at the No. 10 central midfielder role.

There is certainly a lot of optimism over what it means for established weapons like Valeri, the reigning Newcomer of the Year, and the talented Nagbe.

“It’s exciting, obviously you can see what those two guys can do, they’re real creative players,” Nagbe said of his two Argentine attack partners. “And the more they’re in the game I feel like it opens stuff for me.”

Valeri said his limited time on the field this preseason means they’re still working out some of the kinks, evidenced by a relatively underwhelming two goals in three games during the four-team tournament at Providence Park. But he also said with the talent in the group, getting in a rhythm together shouldn’t take long.

“We had the ball, we had some chances, so we need to be better,” he said. “But it’s a long season, and I think we will be better.”

And despite having just one game together, Porter said the group’s progression is about as far along as can be expected at this point of the season. With no new injuries sustained since camp opened – and Valeri now back and newly acquired attacker Steve Zakuani getting close – the preseason went about as well as could be expected, the coach added.

“A lot of other teams have more pieces to manage, to figure out, they’re still tinkering with their systems, still trying to figure out the philosophy they’re going to play, all that stuff,” Porter said after Monday’s training session at the stadium. “We’re clear on that, we’re set on that.

"So the nice thing is we can already start to dig into some concepts, some tactical things that we want to work on instead of trying to figure out our personnel, who’s going to start and all that stuff.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.