- Portland Timbers (POR)
- Western Conference
- Home: Providence Park
- MLS CUP: 2015
The Portland Timbers’ final two months of the 2015 season were magic.
Call it getting hot at the right time. Call it a formation-shift masterstroke by head coach Caleb Porter. Call it whatever you want, but the bottom line is it ended with the Rose City dancing in the rain and still walking on the clouds after the Timbers won their first MLS Cup – also the first in all of Cascadia.
What may be conveniently overlooked heading into their title defense season is the fact that before the calendar flipped to October last year and Portland transformed into world-beaters, they were a club scuffling along just hoping to get a sniff of the postseason. Their offense was among the league’s lowest producing, and after a loss to Sporting Kansas City on Oct. 3 they were faced with the prospect of wringing results out of their final three games or missing out on the playoffs for the second consecutive time in Porter’s three years at the helm – and all the hand-wringing that would have followed.
So the question is, heading into the 2016 season, is which team are the Timbers? The one that produced inconsistent results most the year, the front runner to win it all again or – perhaps – even better?
The argument that they can continue their form from last fall is a good one.
Despite a number of personnel losses – striker Maximiliano Urruti, winger Rodney Wallace, left back Jorge Villafana and former captain Will Johnson the biggest among them – they really bring back all of their starters. Urruti was always going to be Fanendo Adi’s backup. Midseason Designated Player signing Lucas Melano had already mostly replaced Wallace. And Johnson had become surplus in Porter’s aforementioned shift to a 4-3-3 formation that only featured one holding midfielder.
The only true starter lost was Villafana, sold to Liga MX club Santos Laguna.
But, really, when Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri and Adi are the centerpieces of your offense and the leaders of one of the league’s best defenses all last season, Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers, are returning, the rest is just gravy.
Whether the Timbers are even better this year is debatable – although they might need to be with the retooling of Western Conference giants LA Galaxy.
Porter has said this preseason that his squad is even more comfortable in the new formation, since they really only used it for two months last season. That’s especially true for Nagbe, Porter said, who had the biggest change in responsibilities in a move from the right wing to a box-to-box central midfield role.
Also, the new pieces Portland brought in are all experienced MLS players: forward Jack McInerney, defenders Jermaine Taylor, Zarek Valentin and Chris Klute and midfielder Ned Grabavoy. Porter said it’s allowed for a seamless preseason, whereas in years past they’ve had to integrate foreign players to not only a new system of play but also a league and country.
At the least, Portland should be considered a favorite to repeat as league champs and a squad whose depth and experience will serve them well in their impending 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League campaign. And who can take issue with that?
Armchair Analyst's Take
Champs! No matter what happens in 2016, the Timbers will be sporting that shiny new star above their crest and justifiably lording it over their Cascadia rivals.
And what should happen is more winning. Caleb Porter struck gold when he made Chara into a fulltime d-mid, setting off a butterfly effect that led all the way to MLS Cup. The Timbers achieved a level of stability with that set that had previously eluded them, turning one of the league’s true up-and-down teams into title winners.
Thus, their understated offseason makes a lot of sense. In McInerney and Klute they got plug-and-play replacements for two of the three important contributors who bid adieu. They haven’t quite done the same at the wing – Rodney Wallace will be missed more than most think – but given Dairon Asprilla’s late-season development, I’m not sure they had to. They can afford to wait and see.
That’s the champs' prerogative.
Key Offseason Transactions
KEY PLAYERS IN:
KEY PLAYERS OUT:
Chris Klute<br> Jack McInerney<br> Zarek Valentin<br><a class="small" href="//www.mlssoccer.com/topic/transactions">All transactions</a>
Will Johnson<br> Jorge Villafaña<br> Rodney Wallace
Player to Watch: Lucas Melano
Melano took a little while to find his feet in 2015 – as is the case with many midseason signings from abroad – but he gave Timbers fans plenty of reasons to be excited as the season rolled on. Now with a full preseason under his belt, Melano figures to be a terror on the wing for a full season given his speed, craftiness and willingness to take on opposing defenders.
Kwarasey; Powell - Borchers - Ridgewell - Valentin; Chara - Nagbe - Valeri; Melano - Adi - Asprilla
As the defending MLS Cup Champions, you should expect all of Portland’s players to carry a high Fantasy price tag. The best advice is to stick with known point producers like Darlington Nagbe ($9.0m) and Diego Valeri ($10.0m) who should both earn more points this season.
- Zarek Valentin
- Chris Klute
- Jack McInerney