Three Big Questions

Three big questions following Portland Timbers' 2021 season

An MLS Cup champion has been crowned, the 2021 season is officially over and focus shifts to 2022 for all 28 (!) clubs as Charlotte FC also enters MLS.

Here, we'll cover three questions for every team as the offseason begins in earnest. With clubs already announcing their roster decisions, the depth charts will look lighter than the first crop of 13. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.

He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.

The big picture

Back in preseason, the Portland Timbers were among the Western Conference favorites. Them making and hosting MLS Cup 2021 was not a surprise, but the route they took to get there amid injuries and treading water in the spring/early summer made them a slight darkhorse come playoff time.

Here's an excerpt from what I wrote ahead of their big showdown Dec. 11 at Providence Park:

Portland navigated a barrage of injuries that forced them to use five goalkeepers this season while spending most of the year without two Designated Players. United States international midfielder Eryk Williamson and Peru's Andy Polo suffered season-ending ailments. Head coach Giovanni Savarese had to patch together lineups to keep the team afloat for long stretches, mixing and matching any and all available bodies.

The Timbers got healthy and improved as the season went on. They ended the regular season on a 10W-3L-1D run and their form continued into the playoffs, booking an MLS Cup date in front of their home fans. But they fell in penalty kicks at the hands of New York City FC, so painfully close.

Penalties are cruel. Sports can be cruel. Onto the offseason.

What happens with Blanco, Valeri?

Portland talisman Sebastian Blanco is currently out of contract and a free agent. While the expectation is it's a matter of time before a deal gets agreed upon, nothing is yet signed and announced.

Blanco, who turns 34 just after the 2022 season starts, rebounded seamlessly from a torn ACL with 7g/7a across 1,182 regular-season minutes and then two more goals in the playoffs. He's got 33g/42a in 127 regular-season appearances with the Timbers.

Questions remain over what any potential deal would look like, though. The Timbers took a hard stance with Diego Valeri a few years ago to preserve a Designated Player spot; we'll see if they do the same with Blanco and if Blanco would ultimately accept a TAM deal. Also, how many guaranteed years?

As for Valeri, the 35-year-old is under contract for 2022, but his future feels in even more doubt than Blanco's. The writing appears to be on the wall for the club legend to depart. Both he and Portland didn't reveal anything one way or the other before or after MLS Cup, but it sure sounded like that was his final game.

"He made this league a better league," Savarese said. "He made the Portland Timbers be what it is. And he's shown all his quality, he's played always with so much passion and he's done a fantastic job to have been an extremely important player for this organization. He's a legend for Portland."

Valeri has made 262 regular-season appearances with the Timbers, scoring 86 goals and assisting a further 91. He won MLS Cup 2015 and consistently stepped up in pressure-filled moments, with 6g/8a in 22 postseason appearances. There are not enough words to describe his profound impact on the Timbers and MLS. He was the gold standard for every player any team signed from Argentina or South America after his arrival, both on and off the field.

"Proud to have been able to be with him these years as coach of the Portland Timbers," Savarese said. "He has a very special family, he's just an example of what foreign players should be for Major League Soccer and for any team in Major League Soccer."

More U22 Initiative in 2022?

Depends on if/what deal Blanco returns on, of course. Yimmi Chara and Jaroslaw Niezgoda are both senior DPs, so if Blanco returns on a DP deal, then Portland will be limited to just one U22 Initiative slot that's already occupied by Santiago Moreno.

Moreno, who was acquired in the summer, showed flashes of his big talent down the stretch and then announced himself on the national stage in the Western Conference Final by scoring from distance and generally being a menace in possession. That goal should have gone down as an own goal because it ricocheted out off the post, then hit Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa's back and rolled in. But I digress.

The Timbers had a few swings at "Valeri heir apparent" that didn't quite work out (Tomas Conechny, Lucas Melano) but early returns on Moreno are strong. With the veteran/in-prime talent on the squad – including Niezgoda, Felipe Mora, Eryk Williamson, Larrys Mabiala, Blanco, both Yimmi and Diego Chara – another rising talent like Moreno would do well for squad balance.

Will we see more two-striker formations?

Niezgoda took a bit longer than expected to return after recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last year, playing just 251 minutes over 13 appearances (three starts) in the regular season. Just like his debut 2020 campaign, he was efficient in his time on the field, even as he was working off some rust. He has 10g/2a in 854 minutes for his MLS career. Naturally, more is expected from the Polish striker in 2022.

Mora, meanwhile, is an in-prime Chilean international and proven MLS goalscorer. He had 11g/5a in 29 appearances (22 starts) last year. He, too, will expect to see the field a ton. Neither player can really play on the wing, so Savarese may look to more 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2) formations next season.

Portland have the talent to excel in that system. Assuming Blanco returns, he can operate from the left wing with a ton of freedom, opposite Yimmi Chara on the other flank. Moreno can play on either side. Diego Chara and Williamson can cover enough ground to operate in central midfield together, while Cristhian Paredes is another option.

Depth chart as of Dec. 23
Portland depth chart Dec 23

Couple thoughts: