By IVES GALARCEP
By almost any measure, the 2012 season was one to forget for the Portland Timbers.
From the team’s terrible record, to the disappointing form of Kris Boyd, down to finishing next to last in the West while expansion classmate Vancouver reached the playoffs in year two, there was plenty to get down about in the Rose City.
There was reason for optimism though, in the form of the looming arrival of new head coach Caleb Porter, who comes to MLS as one of the most respected and innovative coaches in the college game. His reputation as a coach took a hit after he coached the U.S. Under-23 National Team in failed Olympic qualifying bid, but he was still impressive enough for the Timbers to offer him their head coaching job ahead of more experienced candidates.
Since taking over on a full-time basis this winter, Porter has begun the transformation of the roster and what we see is a team that should be considerably better in 2013. The midfield needed upgrading and the Timbers did just that by adding Diego Valeri and Will Johnson, while Ryan Johnson and Darlington Nabge could thrive in Porter’s possession-style attack.
Fans in Portland will be hoping for year three to provide the turnaround the city is desperate for, and while the Timbers should be more fun to watch, the pressure will be on Porter to deliver a team that can match the quality and impressiveness of the fan base.
Here is a closer look at the Portland Timbers heading into the 2013 MLS season:
PORTLAND TIMBERS SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: (8-16-10, eighth in MLS)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, Ryan Johnson, Mikael Silvestre, Freddie Piquionne, Dylan Tucker-Gagnes, Ryan Miller, Michael Harrington, Milos Kocic, Steven Evans, Ben Zemanski, Michael Nanchoff
KEY LOSSES: Kris Boyd, Danny Mwanga, Lovel Palmer, Steve Smith, Kosuke Kimura, Eric Alexander, Eric Brunner, Mike Fucito
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Diego Valeri. The Argentine playmaker will have the task of leading the Timbers attack, which should be considerably more dangerous.
PRESSURE IS ON: Darlington Nagbe. The former No. 2 overall draft pick has enjoyed moments of brilliance, and has at times flashed the quality that made him such a highly-rated prospect, but he has struggled to find consistency in his time in the pros. Now his former college coach is running the Timbers and Nagbe will have every opportunity to showcase his skills in a system he knows well. There will be no excuses for him not to do well.
Why is there reason for optimism in the Rose City? Porter rebuilt the midfield, and added two quality players who fit his preferred style perfectly. Diego Valeri could be on of the best newcomers in MLS in 2013, while Will Johnson has a chance now to be a leader and captain after playing a secondary role for RSL for the past few years. That duo is key to the Timbers’ chances of turning things around.
The attack will still need some players to step up their previous production. Ryan Johnson has had stretches of very good form, but has yet to put together a complete season. Porter likes him in the target forward role and Johnson could thrive there. Johnson will have competition for his place now that Freddie Piquionne is on the team. Piquionne hasn’t exactly torn it up in Europe the past few years, but the Timbers believe he is a viable target forward option who is joining for a reasonable price (believed to be in the $150K to $170K range).
Another player who will need to improve on his 2012 form is goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who joined the Timbers from Montreal after struggling badly with the Impact. When he is on his game, Ricketts can be one of the best in the league, and his form in Jamaica’s recent scoreless draw against Mexico at Azteca suggests Ricketts enters the 2013 season riding a wave of confidence.
While the Timbers should be a better attacking team under Porter, what remains to be seen is just how much better the defense will be. The back-line was woefully inconsistent in 2012, but Porter set out to upgrade the fullback spots and has brought in Michael Harrington and Ryan Miller to provide the possession and attacking quality likes from his fullbacks.
The centerback position is a work in progress, with several candidates vying for the two spots. The Timbers brought in French veteran Mikael Silvestre to provide leadership in the back, and with him a good candidate to eventually start, the competition will be fierce for the other centerback. Colombian Hanyer Mosquera was expected to be a starter, while second-year defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste has earned a lion’s share of first-team playing time this pre-season. David Horst is dealing with some injury issues but should be right in the mix for playing time, while rookie Dylan Tucker-Gangnes has a bright future and could be turned to in a pinch.
Porter will have his hands full putting all the new pieces together, but with a promising midfield and some good attackers to play in the front three of a 4-3-3, the Timbers should have little trouble scoring goals in bunches. If Porter can piece together a formidable defense, and Ricketts can regain anywhere close to his Goalkeeper of the Year form, the Timbers could very well be a playoff team in 2013.