The big undertaking for Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter so far this preseason has been integrating the club’s new players.
With the majority of Portland’s key pieces from last season returning, that’s especially true for two offseason acquisitions expected to play critical roles in 2014: Argentines Gastón Fernández (pictured) and Norberto Paparatto. That was the primary goal of a nearly two-week preseason camp just ended in Tucson, Ariz. The club returned to Portland on Thursday ahead of the four-team Rose City Invitational preseason tournament that starts Feb. 23.
“It’s getting them up to speed and getting the little connections built and the understanding, all those little things just take time to come together,” Porter told MLSsoccer.com from Arizona. “It’s been very smooth. … With the new guys, it’s a matter of them getting on track and getting up to speed with us, but because we don’t have a ton of new pieces it makes it a lot easier.”
Porter said that Fernández, the 30-year-old striker brought on board to replace Ryan Johnson, has caught on especially fast.
“Gastón has been probably the quickest transition,” Porter said. “He’s been in an environment where they play and train in a style that is very similar, and I think with the role he’s had and how he’s used to playing and some of his strengths, he’s fit in immediately. And I think because we have some guys around him that he can connect with, I think he enjoys that.”
That connection, Porter said, is already forming among similarly skilled attackers such as Darlington Nagbe and fellow countrymen Diego Valeri and Maximillano Urruti thanks to common traits elite talents share. Fernández saw action in three of the Timbers' four preseason games, recording two assists.
“We’ve got some really nice pieces, some guys who have some creativity and some quality,” Porter said. “So he’s just another one of those guys who can fit in and do some really nice things in the attack.”
Porter said Fernández has even embraced his expected dual role as the first line of defense in the aggressive coach’s pressing style.
“Most attackers don’t wake up in the morning and start thinking about playing defense,” Porter said. “But he’s immediately bought into our pressing game. Really, really pleased with that side of things. I thought that would take a little bit of time to get him on board with that.”
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The biggest transition for the center back Paparatto, Porter said, has been developing his offensive game, something he didn’t utilize at his former club, Tigre. Porter expects his defenders to often start play out of the back to establish a high line, qualities he’s confident Paparatto will rediscover.
“It’s just getting him sharp and clean and trying to find a balance between playing but not trying to do too much,” Porter said. “I think that’s a big thing, getting that balance right.”
Porter said Paparatto's main focus has been establishing himself defensively. He also saw action in three preseason matches.
“First and foremost, he’s just a good solid defender,” Porter said. “So we don’t want him to worry so much about being good on the ball that he forgets about being a good defender first because that’s ultimately his best quality, in my opinion.”
Another new piece Porter expects to play a role on Portland’s back line is Jorge Villafaña, acquired form Chivas USA to create depth at left back. The Timbers starter at that position, Michael Harrington, was away at USMNT camp for the first part of Portland’s preseason, giving Villafaña plenty of time on the field.
“They’re good players,” Porter said of his new weapons. “And obviously if you pick guys that fit the system it makes their integration a lot easier and more seamless.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.