Season Preview: Portland Timbers

Like a hot new boy band busting onto the music scene, the Portland Timbers came out of nowhere last season to  improve more than any other MLS team, jumping from an eighth-place Western Conference finish and 34 points in 2012 to first place and 57 points in 2013. Expectations are high for 2013 Coach-of-the-Year Caleb Porter, and we will soon see which member of the band the Timbers are; a legitimate talent with true staying power like RSL, the Galaxy and JT, or the goofy one that is just along for the ride, like 2007 ChivasUSA, 2010 FC Dallas, and Chris Kirkpatrick. Do the Timbers have a model that will let them hang with the big boys, or will they regress to the mean with a vengeance? ASA readers see them as Nick Carter material, with a majority of voters picking the Timbers to win the Western Conference for a second season in a row.

PTFC2013squad

 Players In    Players Out  
Name Pos   Name Pos
Jorge Villafana D Trade from Chivas USA David Horst D Traded to Houston
Norberto Paparatto D Transfer from Tigre Ryan Miller D Option declined
Bryan Gallego D Homegrown player Dylan Tucker-Gangnes D Waived
Taylor Peay D SuperDraft Andrew Jean-Baptiste D Traded to Chivas USA
Steve Zakuani M Re-Entry Stage 1 Mikael Silvestre D Contract terminated
Schillo Tschuma M/F SuperDraft Sal Zizzo M Traded to Sporting KC
George Fochive M SuperDraft Brent Richards F Waived
Aaron Long M SuperDraft Sebastian Rincon F Loan expired
 Andrew Weber GK  Free Transfer Jose Valencia F Loaned to Club Olimpo
Milos Kocic GK Retired

Roster Churn: Portland returns 82.31% of their minutes played in 2013, 6th most in MLS.

 

2014 Preview

Median age: 25 *Designated player

Median age: 25
*Designated player

Coming off their first place Western Conference finish in 2013, the Timbers’ theme for the 2014 offseason has been “more of the same”. Led by new coach Caleb Porter and MLS Newcomer-Of-The-Year Diego Valeri, the Timbers were a surprise contender in 2013. Porter’s 4-5-1/4-3-3 hybrid system was a 180% turn from their philosophy under former coach John Spencer, and it brought the team immediate success. By controlling possession and maintaining the defensive pressure even in the opposition end, the Timbers brought a unique style that was both entertaining and effective. This attack based system saw them finish with the third most goals in the league last year, despite being only 9th in attempts. Not only were their attacks fruitful, they were dangerously efficient. Unlike last season’s roster overhaul, Portland made few big changes in the offseason for 2014, instead solidifying their depth and bringing in two Argentine veterans to shore up the back-line and attacking corps. Clearly, the Timbers are willing to ride Goalkeeper-of-the-Year Donovan Ricketts and playmakers Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe in the upcoming season.

The Attack

As in 2013, Valeri and Nagbe will be relied on to be the catalysts for the Portland offense. Led by their 12 and 10 goals respectively, the Timbers finished with the fourth best finishing rate (goals divided by attempts) in MLS last season. Being two of the most fouled players in MLS last season, and due to Valeri’s somewhat slow recovery from off-season hernia surgery, their health could determine if Portland can continue to finish with similar efficacy this season. Still, the additions of Gaston Fernandez and Steve Zakuani will alleviate some of the dependence on Portland’s playmakers. If injury isn’t an issue, the Timbers can expect to score lots of goals in 2014.

PORINFO

The biggest (and perhaps the only) major offseason subtraction was the loss of Jamaican international and Oregon State alum Ryan Johnson’s nine goals (third on the team last year), as he pursues a career in China. The departure of Johnson will certainly be felt, but late-season acquisition Maxi Urruti had taken over the starting striker position before an injury last year, and he looks to fit perfectly into Porter’s high-pressure defensive scheme. Also significant has been the addition of “La Gata” Fernandez. Besides having the best tribute video on the internet, Fernandez will fill some of the holes left by both Johnson and Rodney Wallace, who tore his ACL in the playoffs and isn’t expected to return until late summer. Fernandez is versatile as an attacking midfielder/forward, and seems likely to assume a utility role on the Left side of Midfield to start the season. Zakuani is an unknown quantity after excelling for the Sounders before enduring two years of injury and disappointment. Few things would be more welcome to Timbers fans than seeing a former Seattle player return to form in Portland, so any significant contribution from Zakuani will be considered a bonus. Couple those additions with first-round SuperDraft pick Schillo Tshuma, who has impressed in preseason, and the Timbers will expect to continue with their high-scoring output last year.

Still, requisite warnings about reading too much into the preseason aside, a lack of scoring (only 6 goals in 7 preseason games) in the lead-up to this MLS season is cause for some concern. For the Timbers system to work they’ll need to score goals in bunches.

The Real Bash Brothers

2012 Timbers Army’s player of the year Diego Chara and captain Will Johnson, who saw his career revitalized by a move to Portland last season, will again anchor a high-energy midfield that is likely to be among the league leading duos in minutes and fouls (Chara has finished in the top three in fouls committed in all three of his MLS seasons). While not as flashy as their attacking counterparts, Chara and Johnson are just as important to the Timbers’ success. Their hard-tackling, box-to-box styles are exemplary of Porter’s possession philosophy. The Timbers will expect to win the midfield battle in nearly every game they play this season, with Chara and Johnson expected to neutralize the opposition’s playmakers as a way to free up and start Portland’s multi-faced attack.

Defensive Questions

Despite a conference best 33 goals against last season, center back was a position in flux last year with six different players all getting starts there (Futty Danso, Pa-Moudu Kah, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Mikel Silvestre, Rauwshan Mckenzie, and David Horst). Jean-Baptiste started the most games next to Kah, but lost his starting spot to Danso in the last couple months of the season. Still, Danso’s limitations were exposed in the playoffs last season, and priority number one for the offseason was to find a consistent starter to pair with Kah. Portland ultimately ended up bringing in contender for best-named signing of the MLS offseason, Argentine Norberto Paparatto. While little besides some YouTube highlight videos (especially dubious when judging a CB) is known about Paparatto, judging by his solid if mostly unremarkable preseason the starting spot next to Kah appears his to lose. The outside backs are likely to stay the same as they were for nearly every game in 2013, with Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington (fresh off a USMNT summer call-up) being active both as wing-defenders and initiators of the attack.

Ricketts silenced his doubters and skeptics last year by earning his second Goalkeeper of the Year award at age 36. While not getting any younger, the Jamaican did a lot to cover up for the mistakes of Portland’s defenders last year, having allowed only 83.2% of the goals a replacement MLS keeper would have, according to our goalkeeper ratings. Along with Nick Rimando, Ricketts was a head above the rest of MLS keepers, having prevented 6.27 goals  more than the average MLS goalkeeper last season. Still, the Timbers appear to be grooming young New Zealander Jake Gleeson (who they have sent on loan to Sacramento Republic FC) to fill Rickett’s shoes, so there will be a smooth transition when Ricketts ultimately retires.

2014 Predictions

The 2014 MLS All-Star game will be in Portland, but the Timbers’ organization and fans expect MLS Cup to be held there, too. Under the guidance and leadership of Caleb Porter and Diego Valeri, year two is primed for success. With the Timbers figuring to compete in all three major competitions – MLS, the US Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League – this is a team that expects success. Outside of the Cascadia Cup, the Timbers have never brought any silverware back to the Rose City, but this could be the year things change.

Our data suggest the Timbers drastically over performed compared their expected goals for and against last season. Did they just get lucky a season ago, or has the organization finally built a model for success? They return their three best players from 2013 in Ricketts, Valeri, and Nagbe, and hope the added experience and chemistry between these players continues to flourish. A lot is expected of the Timbers this season, and only time will tell if 2013 was a sign of things to come, or in the words of N’SYNC, it will be “Bye, Bye, Bye” for their championship hopes in 2014.

Crowdsourcing Results

1st place in the Western Conference; 204 of 404 (50.4%) readers projected the Timbers to win the Western Conference, and 386 (95.5%) projected them to make the playoffs in some capacity.

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Game of the Week: Real Salt Lake vs. Portland Timbers

A look at the 4-2 scoreline may give the appearance that Real Salt Lake shredded Portland’s defense in an wide-open free-for-all. On the contrary, two of RSL’s goals came directly from corner kicks, while a third was courtesy of the generosity and stone touch of Futty Danso (who was also marking Schuler on RSL’s first goal). Credit should of course go to Salt Lake for piling on the pressure, but what really characterized Real Salt Lake’s play on Sunday was not a free-flowing attack, but rather excellent team defense and a commitment to attacking via the flanks.

No Space for Portland

Throughout the match, Real Salt Lake’s defensive shape remained resolute, and never came close to being broken down by Portland’s 4-3-3. Kyle Beckerman was, as ever, the linchpin of RSL’s midfield, leading the team in aerial duels won with 6 (of 7) and tackles (4, tied with Tony Beltran), and contributing 6 clearances. However, the incessant pressure of Sebastian Velazquez and Luis Gil—who it should be noted are 19 and 22 years old, respectively—along with the fullback pairing of Beltran (who led RSL in touches with 76) and Chris Wingert/Lovel Palmer, never allowed any space for Diego Valeri or Darlington Nagbe to work their magic in the midfield. Many of Portland’s forays into the penalty area stemmed from Rodney Wallace collecting the ball in wide positions and sending in listless crosses (0-for-6) that were easily dealt with by Nat Borchers. Forward Ryan Johnson was kept in check all game, limited to a mere 18 touches in his 59 minutes on the field.

The entirety of Portland’s productive offensive output consisted of Will Johnson’s free kick goal, Piquionne’s soaring headed goal, and a 77th minute shot from Alhassan after a slick dribbling spell through the heart of RSL’s midfield. For the entire game, Portland had only two successful dribbles and three successful crosses in the attacking third (one of which was Jewsbury’s beautiful assist).

Defending from the Front

The only change in the starting lineup for Real Salt Lake to start the game was Devon Sandoval replacing an ailing Alvaro Saborio. While few would argue that Sandoval is the better player, his kinetic style, defensive workrate, and ability to get into wide spaces provided problems for the Great Wall of Gambia.

Chalkboards of Devon Sandoval vs. Portland (left) and Alvaro Saborio vs. Los Angeles (right)

RSLvPor-11-11-Sandoval RSLvLA-11-07-Saborio

As you can see, the defense starts from the front. Sandoval pressured wide all game long, trying to disrupt Portland’s rhythm in the defensive half of the field. Of Sandoval’s 43 actions against Portland, only 11 (25.6%) took place in the center third of the field, compared to 15 of 28 (53.6%) for Saborio against Los Angeles. Sandoval also pressured back more than Saborio did: 8 of 43 (18.6%) actions by Sandoval took place in RSL’s half of the field, compared to a meager 2 of 28 for Saborio (7.1%).

Stretching the Diamond

What really stuck out about the way that Real Salt Lake played, however, was the way that their midfield “diamond” stretched from touchline-to-touchline, with Velazquez manning the left, Gil hugging the right, and Morales drifting from side-to-side, looking for an inch of space wherever he could find it.

Here is a chalkboard of passes attempted by Real Salt Lake, along with the percentage of passes attempted from each section of the field:

RSLvPOR-11-11-RSLBallPossessionAreas     RSLvPOR-RSLPossessionNinthed

And here are all of the passes attempted by Portland, along with the percentage breakdown:

RSLvPOR-11-11-PORBallPossessionAreas     RSLvPOR-PORPossessionNinthed

Real Salt Lake attempted only 13.6% of their passes from the central attacking portions of the field, while 64.3% of their passes came from the wide attacking areas. Portland, by contrast, attempted 18.9% of their passes from the central areas, and 58.6% of their passes coming from the wide attacking zones.

RSL ratio of wide-attacking passes to central-attacking passes: 4.73-to-1
POR ratio of wide-attacking passes to central-attacking passes: 3.10-to-1

Real Salt Lake took their chances against Portland’s flank defense rather than try to fight through Will Johnson and Diego Chara. The gambit worked well, as all eight of RSL’s key passes and assists came from wide positions.

Three questions for leg 2 in Portland:

1. Will Saborio be healthy? If so, Sandoval will likely see the bench again as Findley’s speed will serve as an outlet against a high-pressing, possibly desperate Timbers squad, unless…

2. Kreis opts for the 4-2-3-1? Beckerman and Yordany Alvarez were deployed in a double pivot at Los Angeles a few weeks ago, and while the results were not exactly convincing, it perhaps implies (or at least I’m inferring) that Kreis may want to take a more conservative approach on the road in the playoffs.

3. Ryan Johnson or Frederic Piquionne? Ryan Johnson has put in a workmanlike effort thus far in the playoffs, but with his playing time diminishing each game (83 min @ SEA, 69 min v SEA, 59 min @ RSL) and Piquionne finally healthy (and able to leap clear over Nat Borchers), it may be time for Piquionne to crack the starting lineup.