2014 MLS Season Preview: Bitter Playoff Exit To Motivate Portland Timbers
The Portland Timbers were the biggest surprise in MLS during the 2013 season. They were in a state of transition with Caleb Porter taking the reins from caretaker manager Gavin Wilkinson. Porter was brought in from the University of Akron where he had turned the program into a perennial National Championship contender producing 14 players drafted into MLS including current Timbers Darlington Nagbe and Steve Zakuani.
Portland came out strong finishing with the best season in their short history and one of the best regular seasons in MLS history with a record of 14 wins, 15 draws and five losses. Their MLS Cup dreams would be dashed in the Western Conference semifinals as Real Salt Lake defeated Portland in both legs with an aggregate of 5-2.
Real Salt Lake was the thorn in Caleb Porter’s side throughout 2013. The two teams met six times between the Regular Season, MLS Playoffs and US Open Cup with Real Salt Lake winning four of those matches; the other two were draws. Portland had a combined record of 21 wins, 13 draws and four losses against clubs not named Real Salt Lake outscoring them 66 to 32.
One of the biggest reasons why the Portland Timbers were so dangerous in 2013 and will continue to be in 2014 is the sheer volume of attacking options they possess. Defenses could shut down Ryan Johnson or Diego Valeri but that would be when players like Will Johnson, Nagbe or Rodney Wallace would step up by contributing that key goal.
This season the Timbers will be without Ryan Johnson who left to find a bigger contract elsewhere ending up in China with Henan Jianye FC but they did find an excellent replacement in Gaston Fernandez from Estudiantes de La Plata. Fernandez does not score many goals but he is the perfect fit in the off-striker position.
The beneficiary of all these attacking options will be forward Max Urruti. Urruti made a handful of appearances in 2013 before a hamstring strain kept him off the field during the stretch run. He is likely to be Porter’s selection at forward from the get go in 2014.
The midfield is arguably the best position grouping for the Portland Timbers with players like W. Johnson, Nagbe, Valeri, Wallace and Diego Chara. Tactically it very difficult to define their formation as well as they play a fluid style of football with players interchanging spots on the field almost constantly. This approach has been another reason why the Timbers are so dangerous because it forces defenses to play a zonal marking style which allows for quick runs between defenders from Nagbe, Valeri and Fernandez.
Portland brought in more speed on the wings in former Chivas USA midfielder Jorge Villafana as well as former Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Steve Zakuani. These additions will have an instant impact as Rodney Wallace recovers from knee surgery after a hard fall suffered in the second leg of the conference finals last season; Wallace could be back as early as May if he heals quickly.
The defense was a big question mark coming into the 2013 season; the same cannot be said coming into 2014. Portland returns all of their starting back four from the deep playoff run in converted right back Jack Jewsbury, Pa Modou Kah, Mamadou Danso and Michael Harrington. On top of that, they added another big body at central defense in 6-foot-4 Argentine Norberto Paparatto from Club Atletico Tigre. Paparatto served as the captain for Tigre last season.
Donovan Ricketts returns to tend the Portland net for another season; he will turn 37 in July but doesn’t look like he is planning to slow down anytime soon. Ricketts has continued to be the starting goaltender for the Jamaican National Team, a position he has held since 1998.
The sky’s the limit for these Portland Timbers. They have a bad taste in their mouth after losing so handily to Real Salt Lake in the playoffs last season. I see the Portland Timbers as the favorites to lift the MLS Cup Trophy in December along with doing well in both the US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League.