The Portland Timbers officially kicked off preseason preparations for 2021 on Wednesday and have big goals for the ensuing nine months or so.
After winning the MLS is Back Tournament in 2020, and battling a rash of injuries to key players to head into the playoffs in form, Portland are ready to build for more this year.
“I see no limits for this team," forward Jeremy Ebobisse told media succinctly on a virtual press conference.
Portland lost Designated Players Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda to season-ending injuries while Ebobisse himself missed the last five regular season games before they lost to FC Dallas after penalties in round one of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Portland were leading until stoppage time, when Ricardo Pepi tied the game to send it to extra time and eventually penalties.
"The way we lost [to Dallas] was so emblematic of our season, giving up goals late in games," Ebobisse said. "Now we’ve seen the height of where we can go to — winning tournaments — but also the low — wasting all of our good work — we need to maintain our high level."
“We improved so much but this year we have to remember we can improve more, we can do more things," head coach Giovanni Savarese added.
Their season kicks off in early April against Honduran side Marathón in the Round of 16 of the 2021 Concacaf Champions League.
“We have big goals this year, especially in the Concacaf Champions League," Savarese said. "We have the desire to be the first [MLS] team to win. LAFC almost did it last year, there have been a few others, but we have the desire to do that. Our main focus is to arrive at the 6th of April in the best possible way.”
They won't kick off the season with their full squad, as Niezgoda is expected out until the summer, but Savarese provided a positive update on Blanco's recovery from a torn ACL, though didn't set a firm return date.
“Seba is an amazing person, his work ethic is incredible," Savarese said. "He’s pushing himself daily to make sure he can come back as soon as possible, but we need to be careful and mindful that he hasn’t played in a long time. We have to be cautious, but he’s getting closer and closer. It’s exciting.”
Balancing pride, practicality with in-season international call-ups
Ebobisse is expected to miss MLS matches while on int'l duty this year
Ebobisse and Eryk Williamson likely won't be with Portland for the entirety of their preseason preparations.
Both were named to the United States' U-23 preliminary roster for the Olympic qualifying tournament and both are widely expected to make the final squad. The tournament is set to run from March 18-30 in Mexico, while head coach Jason Kreis will kick off a two-and-a-half-week preparation camp on site in Guadalajara on Monday.
It's the first instance of many which Portland (and most other MLS clubs) will be without a few regulars.
“It’s something we plan for," Savarese said. "From the start, we look at the players we have and map the entire year. We believe we’re going to miss some players and we have to figure out how we’ll make it. We know we’ll have players we’ll lose, like JeBo and Eryk, then players like [Felipe] Mora and Bravo — there’s so many tournaments, we have to look at every scenario. If one goes, how balanced are we? The most important thing is how deep our team is and I think we’ve done a great job to build a team that’s deep, where there’s competition at every position.”
Ebobisse and Williamson aren't the club's only international regulars and with so many tournaments in a compressed 2021 calendar making up for lost time from 2020, the vast majority of MLS sides are bracing for periods without regulars. Andy Polo is usually called up by Peru, Felipe Mora has played for Chile, Yimmi Chara has been on the fringes of the Colombian squad and Bravo is expected to be at the Olympics with Argentina, who he helped guide to qualification, to name a few.
Olympic qualifying and the final tournament itself don't require clubs across the world to release their players. Theoretically, Portland could reject the call-up so the players would have to stay at the club and not miss games. That's why age-eligible USMNT stars like Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and Weston McKennie weren't on the preliminary squad.
Typically, though, MLS clubs don't decline these call-ups. It may not be ideal in the short-term being without a couple of key players for a few games, but Savarese believes pays off in the long-term.
“You want players to be successful, to make their national teams," Savarese said. "Specifically talking about JeBo and Eryk, for the coaching staff and the club, it’s a moment of pride to watch them represent their country. It’s pride that we can help develop young players for the United States, it’s something to us that’s important and you have to plan from the beginning.”