Even after the Portland Timbers were eliminated from the 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs by FC Dallas, head coach Gio Savarese hasn't taken much time away from the game.
Savarese continues to watch an immense amount of matches, from the Champions League to Copa Libertadores and everything in between. And if he's not doing that, he's always ready for the regular game of foosball in his home. He's still watching MLS, of course, even as the disappointment mounts that his side were sent home last week in excruciating fashion, after sudden death penalties.
“Offseason, oof, that’s tough. It’s really difficult for me to watch MLS matches," Savarese told media on a virtual press conference Thursday. "… To watch Seattle go forward in a year we thought we had their pulse, we were looking forward to seeing them again in the playoffs. Unfortunately we didn’t. This has been tough, losing the way we lost, it was difficult. But that's soccer and we have to live with that."
More than just live with it, Savarese and the rest of the club have set their sights on 2021.
Portland should expect to return the vast majority of key contributors from a roster that won the MLS is Back Tournament and finished third in the Western Conference despite season-ending injuries to two Designated Players, Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda.
The Timbers hope to have Blanco back in action in March or April, while Niezgoda is expected back at some point in the summer.
“In general terms, we want to strengthen the wide areas defensively and we want to get another young central defender," GM & president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson said. "We’ve already moved two players, which will be announced when the trade window opens. Those were trades with the players fully involved in the discussions to see what they wanted.”
Wilkinson added that the club will not pick up contract options on defender Chris Duvall and midfielder Andres Flores. He didn't name which players will be traded, though it will be made official and announced before long. The MLS half-day trade window opens on December 13, the day after MLS Cup.
Portland are also well on their way to making acquisitions.
“We’re close to finalizing one [signing] who will be a remarkable addition," Wilkinson said. "He’ll be, in theory, one of the top five at his position in the league. We’re excited about that, but we’ve got a little work to do on that one.”
The defensive reinforcements will help address their chief concern of conceding too often. They had 35 goals against, third-most among Western Conference playoff teams. They were second in MLS in expected goals against (41.27), ahead of only the Vancouver Whitecaps, suggesting it could have even been a little worse.
“We believe in this group in a very strong way, coming short was very sad," Savarese said. "An area I have to say that needs to be better is the fact that we conceded too many goals, that’s one thing we have to be better next year.”
Savarese also pointed to goals conceded late and goals conceded on set pieces that were particularly frustrating and an area in need of improvement.
Still, even with the sour end, the Timbers are proud of the unique 2020 campaign. With their triumph in Orlando at the MLS is Back Tournament, they received a berth to the Concacaf Champions League. The tournament gives the team another chance for silverware and also the opportunity to grow the Timbers' profile outside of the United States. But qualifying for the tournament also brings with it a number of hurdles, including the need for more depth as well as the heightened importance of getting signings sorted earlier than normal so they're ready for the tournament to start ahead of the MLS season.
“Using 2020 as a platform with our depth, we have to recreate that," Wilkinson said. "That’s the biggest question and challenge right now.”