The evolution: This will be the fourth season of the Darlington Nagbe Experience, and I think there's an argument that this is the year we'll find out if Nagbe is meant to be a legend, or merely great. He has MVP-caliber talent, and does stuff with the ball that nobody in MLS (and few in the world) can do. But he was miles away from being MVP of the Timbers in 2013, let alone the league. Will he keep improving, and if so, how much?
Penetration: Rodney Wallace was far from the most talented player in the Portland attack, but he was invaluable. He offered width, speed and direct play off the ball on the left, dragging defenders out there with him and opening up channels for the other attackers. He's out until at least June with a torn ACL, and Steve Zakuani (a natural replacement and possible upgrade) isn't ready yet, either. Nobody else on the roster seems to offer that skillset, so expect teams to try to bunch Portland up in the attack.
Being a sniper: Maximiliano Urruti offers a lot of things up front, with workrate and clever off-the-ball movement being the two that most stand out. What doesn't – or hasn't so far, at least – is clinical finishing. He doesn't need to be a Golden Boot winner, but if he can bag a dozen or so goals, that will take much of the pressure off the midfield, which was overworked at times in 2013.
Star Attraction: Diego Valeri
When he was healthy last year, you were totally within your rights to make the argument that Valeri was the league's best player. His ability to instantly transition from facilitator to playmaker to finisher and back again was probably unmatched by any other central midfielder in the league, and his touch on the final ball is often breathtaking.
The "when he was healthy" caveat is a big one, though. Valeri spent most of the second half of the season limping around, trying to avoid aggravating a sports hernia that he eventually had to have surgery on. Caleb Porter cut his minutes, and the difference between a fit Valeri and a 70 percent (at best) Valeri was the difference between the high-pressure juggernaut that smothered teams to death early in the season and the one that had to play a deeper line and gut wins out down the stretch.
He still managed to be awesome (as sad Sounders fans will recall from the playoffs). But for Portland to be the best team in the league, he needs to be awesome and fit.
Probable Formation: 4-3-3
GK: Donovan Ricketts
RB: Jack Jewsbury
CD: Norberto Paparatto, Pa Modou Kah
LB: Michael Harrington
DM: Diego Chará
CM: Will Johnson
AM: Diego Valeri
RW: Darlington Nagbe
FWD: Maximiliano Urruti
LW: Gastón Fernández
Major Acquisition: Norberto Paparatto
There are a couple of boxes that Paparatto needs to check in order to become the player Timbers fans hope he'll be.
First off, he'll have to be a dominant aerial presence (which shouldn't be too much of an ask, since he's 6-foot-4). It's a simple thing, but a necessary thing as well. Portland probably had nightmares all offseason about defending against RSL on restarts, and it's worth mentioning that LA, Seattle and San Jose all look like they'll have improved in that department from 2013 as well.
Second, he's got to do what he can to make sure the backline doesn't get, for lack of a better word, "gappy." Pa Modou Kah is prone to go on walkabout, so Paparatto is going to have to anticipate that and figure out how to close down the lanes that open up as a consequence.
If those boxes get checked, Paparatto will be a hero. If they don't, the Timbers will still be one of the best teams in the league – but a team with flaws that can be exploited in the postseason.
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What He Said
“There’s a lot of flexibility. 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.”
Fantasy Pick: Diego Valeri ($10.5m/ selected by 14.7 percent of teams) – Had 11 goals, 13 assists and 14 clean sheets despite missing 500-plus minutes due to injury. He could potentially lose some production value with the addition of Gastón Fernández, but having too many weapons shouldn't hurt him that much. Solid MVP candidate as long as he remains healthy.
Players to watch: Gaston Fernandez, Darlington Nagbe, Maximiliano Urruti
This team is built for a Supporters' Shield run, with talent and depth all over the field. The health of Valeri and the Wallace/Zakuani combo are concerns, as is the tepid form Donovan Ricketts showed in the playoffs, but that's the thing about this roster: They can survive all of that and still play at an elite level. It's a well put-together team.
Now, if everybody is healthy for selection every time out, that might actually be a bit of a headache for Porter. I don't quite see how Nagbe, Valeri, Maximiliano Urruti and Gastón Fernández can open up the field regardless of formation. And if they're all on form, then they'll all be on the field.
It's a nice little jigsaw puzzle for Porter, who is known as a 4-3-3 coach but is actually much more tactically flexible than he's given credit for. I wouldn't be at all shocked to see the old Ancelotti Christmas Tree (4-3-2-1) trotted out once or twice. Regardless, it could get tight out there, and while that probably won't matter much against disorganized teams, it will matter a bunch against the cream of the crop out West.
I'm just going to mention Will Johnson and Diego Chará here. The reason I'm taking the whole "Portland will survive even if hit by injuries" line is largely because of them. They cover so much ground and make up for so many mistakes that you pretty much have to be perfect to break the Timbers down.
Does that make Portland the favorites? Not yet – we've got them No. 2 in the first Power Rankings of 2014.
That said, don't be even a little surprised if they're No. 1 in the last.