After winning the MLS is Back Tournament and a surprising early exit from the MLS Cup Playoffs, the Portland Timbers return all their key pieces from 2020.
Last season ended on a sour note, with Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Sebastian Blanco both out indefinitely and the Timbers losing on penalties to FC Dallas in the first round of the playoffs. Portland led from the 82nd to 93rd minutes, conceding a late goal to 17-year-old Ricardo Pepi.
Conceding late goals was a problematic trend for the Timbers last season—LAFC, Colorado, and Seattle all stole valuable points with late goals during the last six regular season matches. Had Portland kept their heads late in games, this could have been a Supporters’ Shield-challenging team. Instead, Portland limped out of the playoffs with only a COVID-tournament trophy and Concacaf Champions League bid to show for it.
Head Coach Giovanni Savarese enters his fourth season with a mostly-healthy squad, led by 34-year-old veteran midfielders Diego Valeri and Diego Chará, along with 33-year-old attacker Sebastián Blanco. As usual, Eryk Williamson and Cristhian Paredes will compete for the second defensive midfield spot alongside Diego Chará.
Last year’s attacking signings of Yimmi Chará, Felipe Mora, and Niezgoda have been productive additions, and they all return. Former Ekstraklasa standout Niezgoda is expected to be out until mid-June with a torn ACL, meaning Mora and U.S. National Team-hopeful Jeremy Ebobisse will be important performers early in the season, especially with Portland taking part in CCL, which begins on April 6th. Ebobisse and Williamson may also participate in Olympic Qualifying as part of the U.S. Under-23 squad, while backup wingers Andy Polo (Peru) and Marvin Loría (Costa Rica) could represent their home countries in international campaigns.
Portland’s defense has seen the most change over the offseason, with outside backs Jorge Villafaña and Marco Farfan being sold to LA Galaxy and LAFC, respectively. They have been replaced by 24-year-old left-back Claudio Bravo from Banfield (permanent deal with Targeted Allocation Money) and Liga MX veteran Josecarlos Van Rankin from Chivas Guadalajara (one-year loan with option to buy).
Center-backs Larrys Mabiala and Dario Župarić will remain the starters, although Portland has been in the market for a young center-back during the offseason—they had an offer for Brazilian defender Zé Gabriel rejected recently, and it’s not the first offer they’ve made for an Under-22 Brazilian. Ismaila “Ish” Jome has been signed as a backup left back, with another signing possibly approaching in midfield, though the front office is known to pounce on a good deal once they see one. Goalkeeper Steve Clark is still the starter, with Jeff Attinella as his backup.
As always, the question for Portland is whether or not “Dos Diegos” can keep up their valuable production as they reach their mid-30s. Everyone from the club indicates they have never shown signs of slowing down, but the questions are still there. Valeri still consistently leads the team in chances created, while Diego Chará finished top-10 in the league in the following categories:
Passes into Final Third (122, 6th)
Pressures (476, 4th)
Blocks (50, 3rd)
Points per Match (2.00, 9th)
Of course, the Colombian missile of Portland’s midfield still maintains his exemplary yellow card count (8, 3rd) and fouls committed totals (46, 2nd).
Blanco and Niezgoda are also question marks coming back from ACL injuries, but both were fantastic when they played last season—Blanco was MLS is Back MVP while Jarek put up seven goals in just seven starts. Niezgoda also led MLS in shots on target percentage (81.8%) and goals per shot (0.64), an exciting debut season for the Polish Designated Player.
Preseason MLS Cup odds have the Timbers at +1400, tied for seventh-most likely winners. They are the third team listed in the Western Conference. Third in the West seems like a reasonable goal, but obviously performances in big games will write the story of the season.
The Timbers won’t even begin this season in MLS play, though—that doesn’t begin until April 18th against Vancouver. Instead, Portland will travel to Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras to face CD Marathón for the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16. In the past, the CCL has started with three-team group stages (which the Timbers failed twice to progress from), but the format has been changed to two-legged knockout rounds until the final.
MLS teams have struggled in this competition, and LAFC’s blown lead in last year’s final was a tough reminder. If the Timbers can make a run, conceding a few league games to prioritize starters in CCL seems like a fair price.
Overall, Portland is headed into another intriguing year. With only 25% of fans allowed in Providence Park, some things will still be far from normal. But that hasn’t stopped this team in the past, and it doesn’t have to this year.
It’s not out of the question to expect a deep playoff run, but this is also a team that could collapse under the pressure of too many matches and bow out early. We’ve seen both before.
My official prediction, though, is a deep run. I am excited about this team, and while pundits have been buying Portland’s stock all offseason, I think this is a team that can truly challenge for MLS Cup.
Prediction: Western Conference Champions (at least), Concacaf Champions League Semifinalists (at least)