PORTLAND – As preseason started on Jan. 23, Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter made his priority for 2017 clear to the reporters assembled to hear his first remarks of the new season.
“The number one things we need is goals,” said Porter, whose Timbers side failed to make the playoffs after capturing MLS Cup in 2015. “[In 2016], the lion’s share of goals came from the No. 9 and No. 10.” Porter continued. “We need goals and assists out of our wide players.”
One step towards resolving the conundrum was to sign winger Sebastian Blanco as a Designated Player. The next: to deploy Darlington Nagbe on the left wing, which is where the analytics, Porter says, suggest Nagbe is most effective. A variety of factors limited Nagbe to only six starts on the left in 2016.
With the switch to left, Porter says, “I think you’ll see his production come back to 2013,” referring to when Nagbe had a career-best nine goals on 62 shots. Nagbe has never taken more than 50 shots in any other season of his career.
Wednesday night's win over the Vancouver Whitecaps to close out the annual Timbers Preseason Tournament offered some early indications that Porter's inkling about Nagbe's position may have been correct.
While Nagbe did not score in the 2-1 win, he did have three shots, two of which were on goal. But there was little doubt as to Nagbe's effectiveness, as he was helped set up both of the Timbers' goals on the night, combining well with left back Vytas in the process. The night was punctuated by Nagbe's heavy involvement in a 15-pass team goal:
Portland would go on to outshoot Vancouver on the evening 16 to 2 but weren’t able to capitalize on several chances in the second half. Despite resting a few key players for the upcoming Champions League match against the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday, Vancouver were in a position to split the points following Cristian Techera’s goal in the 80th minute.
As strong as they were in some facets of the game, Porter firmly believes that after three-and-a-half weeks of preseason play, there is still plenty of room for improvement in “all areas” of the team.
The team “should have scored more goals”, Porter said, and “needs to be sharper on the ball.”
Porter also noted that the team failed to collect a clean sheet, a feat that has so far eluded Portland this preseason, when Techera converted on Vancouver's only shot on goal.
“I’m looking for the perfect game,” Porter said. “I’ll probably be looking all year for the perfect game. Because I think this group can really have a special season.
“It’s my job they keep pushing [so they] keep getting better.”