Filling the gaps - Portland Timbers hope key additions take them back to the top
2017 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
Coming off a MLS Cup win in 2015, the Portland Timbers fell flat in 2016. Caleb Porter has no doubt why that happened.
“If we had a healthy squad last season, we would have been in the playoffs – it’s that simple,” the Timbers head coach told Goal. “But we weren’t healthy. The problem is we had to rely on our depth and our depth didn’t get the job done.”
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As key player after key player went down, the Timbers were forced to abandon their preferred style of play.
“We had a few holes where guys couldn’t allow us to keep the ball like we wanted to keep the ball,” Porter said. “We ended up being more of a reactionary, low-block counterattacking team. You have to be adaptable and do that at times but we did it far too much.”
At various points during Porter’s four-year tenure as head coach, Portland has successfully implemented a style that’s become known as “Porterball” – an up-tempo, high-pressing game that highly values possession.
In 2015, the Timbers ranked eighth out of 20 MLS teams in possession during the regular season. In 2016, that number dropped to 15th.
Following the 2016 season, Portland developed an offseason blueprint to address the club’s shortcomings.
“We had a really clear plan this offseason of what we wanted to do, and it starts with adding three starters: a winger, a true No. 6 and a center back,” Porter said. “That was the first priority. The second priority was rebuilding our depth.”
So far, the Timbers have hit those goals, save for the center back. It all started with that No. 6, which arrived in the form of Costa Rica international David Guzman. The team then addressed its winger issue by completing the long-running transfer saga of Sebastian Blanco, who arrived as a designated player from Argentine club San Lorenzo.
As Porter explains, strengthening the team’s midfield will go a long way toward reimplementing Portland’s preferred style of play.
“The first signing we made was Guzman because we felt like getting that No. 6 sorted meant we could get [Diego] Chara back in his best position, which is to play as a box-to-box midfielder, a No. 8,” Porter said.
“[We] could get [Darlington] Nagbe back in his best position, where he’s scored the most goals and that’s left wing," he continued. "And that protects — with two holding mids now — [Diego] Valeri where he can do what he does best, which is play as a No. 10 with a lot of freedom. We also knew that meant we needed a right winger. That led to us scouring the world to try and find the perfect fit, and we feel like we’ve got that in Blanco.”
Valeri, who along with lone striker Fanendo Adi helped carry the Timbers’ offense in 2016, said the team’s additions will help Portland overload the midfield, allowing the Timbers to control possession and build attacks more effectively.
“The idea of Caleb is to get a strong midfield so we have Diego and David, Seba, Darlington and me, that we create good numbers from the middle which is where most of the game is decided,” Valeri told Goal. “David can help us defensively to be more balanced without and with the ball. Seba can help us create a little more, to get more movement and dynamic in the middle and obviously to score some goals. He’s very dynamic and very creative. They can help a lot.”
Guzman and Blanco were the jewels of Portland’s offseason haul, but Porter says some of the depth pieces the Timbers added will prove to be just as crucial to the team’s success in 2017.
Veteran defenders Lawrence Olum and Chance Myers arrived from Sporting Kansas City, and longtime Red Bulls left back Roy Miller will return to MLS after a year in Costa Rica once he finishes playing with Saprissa in the CONCACAF Champions League. Dairon Asprilla returns to bolster Portland’s wing depth after a loan spell with Millonarios in his native Colombia, while fourth overall draft pick Jeremy Ebobisse will help spell Adi up top.
“Our depth is stronger and now we can keep a consistent playing style,” Porter said. “We can rotate the squad and not get any drop off and that’s why we really felt that rebuilding our bench was just as important as adding three starters.”
Of course, one of those starters has yet to arrive as the season approaches. Following the retirement of Nat Borchers and January’s season-ending injury to starting candidate Gbenga Arokoyo, the Timbers are still left with a hole in their lineup next to center back fixture Liam Ridgewell.
Porter says the team is in discussions with multiple center back candidates and hopes to announce a new signing soon. Even before that piece is added though, Porter said he feels confident that his team’s new additions will make this Timbers season much more like 2015 than last year.“When you look at the roster now versus last year’s roster, it’s way stronger and that gives me a really good feeling,” Porter said.