A week-and-a-half ago, my colleague Bobby Warshaw wrote THIS column, in which he listed – by his own reckoning – the Western Conference contenders. They were Seattle, LA, RSL, Dallas and Sporting, with the other seven teams grouped in as "the rest."
Portland Timbers fans took offense. In large part that's because the Timbers finished top of the West in last year's regular season, and they did that because they had Diego Valeri. The reigning MVP was remarkable last season:
There's been a massive influx of Argentinean talent over the last few years, but Valeri was/is/probably will remain the best of them for at least one more year. But he's going on 32, and while I don't necessarily agree with Bobby's take on the West contenders/pretenders breakdown, I do think that there's at the very least a plausible argument to make that Portland are riding a finer line than some want to believe.
Portland's 3 most important players last year were Valeri, Diego Chara and Liam Ridgewell. Those guys will be 32, 34 and 32 by the middle of the season. Ridgewell had his second-straight injury plagued year in 2017, and Chara is coming off a broken foot. Valeri obviously just hit his peak and can't be expected to perform at that level again.
There have been backups brought in at all three spots, but Valeri, Chara and Ridgewell are who they are because they're elite players in the first place. Valeri's season spoke for itself, and the Timbers have long been helpless when Chara's out. Ridgewell is somewhat debatable, but the short view tells a story:
- Timbers in 2017 w/ Ridgewell: 8-5-2, +10 GD, 4 shutouts in 15 games
- Timbers in 2017 w/o Ridgewell: 7-6-6, 0 GD, 3 shutouts in 19 games
So does the long view, as since Ridgewell joined the team in mid-2014 the Timbers pick up 1.47 points per game when he plays, and 1.16 when he doesn't. That's the difference between a 50-point season (hello, playoffs!) and a 40-point season (hello, rebuild!).
He might not be quite so crucial in 2018 as I like Portland's depth more than last year. New arrival Julio Cascante should be an excellent pick-up at center back, and along with Larrys Mabiala should, in theory, form a competent enough non-Ridgewell central defensive unit.
So I still have them as a top two or three team in the West as of now. But it wouldn't be utterly shocking to see this team tumble down to the fringe of playoff contention if age and injuries mount, or if the central defensive rotation can't find their rhythm out of the blocks.
When your best/most important players are all either old (even Sebastian Blanco turns 30 this year) or hurt (Fanendo Adi, in addition to Chara & Ridgewell, missed a big chunk of last season), then you're playing with fire.
Seattle got away with it last year. Portland might not in 2018.