PORTLAND, Ore. – A year ago, the Portland Timbers reported to preseason camp not knowing what to expect.
There was a new head coach, nearly half the players were newcomers and returning players had just endured a tumultuous and mostly unsuccessful season. But this time around, on a bluebird Saturday morning at JELD-WEN Field, the Timbers reported for Year 2 under head coach Caleb Porter knowing exactly what to expect.
“Guys are much more comfortable than last year,” Porter told MLSsoccer.com before Saturday’s session. “[Last year] half the team was new, new coach and I was having to basically roll out our way of playing, our new style and system.”
And Porter said hitting the ground running will be a huge benefit – a much-needed one, too.
Not only will the Timbers have a bull’s-eye planted firmly on their back, they’ll also have the added responsibility and pressure of playing in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League. And Porter said there were some areas they needed to improve during the offseason.
He feels they did that with the additions of the Argentine pair of Gastón Fernández and Norberto Paparatto, former Seattle Sounders attacker Steve Zakuani and Chivas USA midfielder Jorge Villafaña.
“Even though we did do well, there were definitely some areas where we needed to be better,” Porter said. “So we tried to be very thorough in that. And in our additions and subtractions we tried to take those things into account, and I think we were able to accomplish what we wanted to.”
He said they went into the offseason looking for those specific pieces, a tall, athletic center back (Paparatto), a versatile forward (Fernández) and left-side attacking help and depth (Zakuani and Villafaña). Now, in the weeks before Portland’s March 8 season opener against the Philadelphia Union, Porter said the challenge will be integrating those new pieces.
“Clean some things up, freshen it up … and we have to figure out how those guys are going to fit in,” he said. “Because when you change a few pieces it does change the group.”
Part of the responsibility of bringing the newcomers along will fall on the squad’s veterans, especially last year’s team captain, Will Johnson.
“Gastón and some of these players who have been around the block, they garner instant respect, right away because of their CV and what they’ve done in the game,” Johnson said. “So for those players, it’s getting to know their tendencies, getting to know what they’re about, trying to get to know them as a person as well because we’re all going to be in the trenches together in a couple of months.”
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Porter did reiterate that the roster is mostly set, despite reports out of Argentina that the Timbers were in talks with midfielder Agustín Pelletieri, which would have give Portland five players from the South American country.
“No, we’re not going to add another Argentine at this point,” Porter said. “Four is a good number.”
And even though it was the first official gathering of the year, there wasn’t much easing into things, either. After warmups, Porter ran them through the paces and drills like it was a midseason training session.
“He set the bar high,” center back Pa Modou Kah said. “And this year, because he’s ambitious, he wants to set it higher. Even though it was the offseason, you had it in the back of your mind that when you come back, you need to come back straight in because the training is going to run and the training will never wait for nobody.
"So either you get on board or you’re off board. And the way the organization is going, it’s only up.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.