PREVIEW- The Portland Timbers crashed out of the first round of MLS Cup Playoffs last year, following despite finishing third in the Western Conference Regular season and winning the only ever edition of the MLS is Back Tournament. They lost Sebastian Blanco to injury and their ability to create and finish goal-scoring chances slowly dried up until they could only finish one of their many against FC Dallas in the playoffs, eventually bowing out on penalties. In the Portland Timbers season preview, we ask questions of whether or not their star core can continue their level of success in 2021.
Key Arrivals: Claudio Bravo, Josecarlos VanRankin
Key Departures: Jorge Villafaña, Marco Farfan
Young Player to Watch: Claudio Bravo
The Portland Timbers will return a significant portion of their starters from the end of the 2020 campaign, and even beyond that. The return of Sebastian Blanco from injury may even feel like a new signing compared to what we saw from the Timbers at the end of the 2020 campaign. Jorge Villafaña was a key starter for them over the past 3-4 years, but slowly found his way out of form and eventually was a weak spot for the club defensively. Portland also traded away Marco Farfan in a head-scratching move. While arguments can be made about their commitment to developing talent within (let’s talk later), the departure of Villafaña and Farfan made it clear that the Timbers needed to target their fullback positions. Enter Claudio Bravo and Josecarlos VanRankin.
Claudio Bravo is a highly rated fullback prospect from Argentina. A starter at Banfield, he made waves in the Argentine premier league, earning a “sharpied-in” spot in Argentina’s U-23 squad where he will certainly feature at this year’s Olympics. He gets forward, providing good service and possession play in the attacking phases while getting back and being a physical defender. VanRankin is a lesser heralded prospect but provides some versatility as he can play on both the left and right of the backline comfortably. With Pablo Bonilla still in the picture, don’t be surprised if the Timbers rotate fullbacks more often for the sake of health and fixture congestion.
How deep of a run can the Timbers make in CONCACAF Champions League?
The spread-out nature of the 2021 edition of CCL certainly plays into a bit of an advantage for MLS teams. As they get stronger with more matches throughout the season, it opens up the door for them make deeper runs, while Liga MX teams will be in and out of their seasons. The Timbers’ first opponent in CCL is Marathón from Honduras. While the first leg being in Honduras will provide a difficult first competitive task of the year for Portland, they do have the opportunity to host matches in front of fans at Providence Park for the return leg. The Timbers “should” be able to handle Marathon over two legs, however, let’s be mindful of the last few times American sides have taken on squads from Honduras, both with club (Sounders vs. Olimpia) and country (U-23’s). The Timbers will need to get through this first legs relatively unscathed. If they happen to get through their series against Marathon, a matchup against Club America awaits, which is the only Liga MX squad on their side of the bracket.
This Timber’s team feels like it should be able to do well in CONCACAF, but historically they never have. They have a bite and tenacity to them and a direct enough model of play that poor playing conditions shouldn’t be of a major effect on them. Given the heavy South American flair to the side, they should be able to handle the wild, rough, rumbling nature that is playing in CCL. Gio Savarese is also the type of manager who somehow gets more out of the players than is seemingly there. Is this version of the Timbers primed for CCL? Or are they going to fall into the “pre-season” trap that can be the early rounds of this competition.
Can Felipe Mora be their ace striker?
The Timber’s haven’t had a strong, proven number 9 since Fanendo Adi could play regularly, save for a few months of a drug-addicted Brian Fernandez. We all know how both of those situations have gone, and the Timbers haven’t looked their best without a true, continually contributing number 9. What team doesn’t? But for some reason, the Timbers don’t seem to love giving the keys to the car to Jeremy Ebobisse, who they have continually brought strikers in despite a goal-scoring level in 2019 that screamed a man was ready to make the big jump. The club brought in Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Felipe Mora after Ebobisse posted double digits in 2019, and only Mora seemed capable of being a regular at the number 9 position. But 7 goals in 24 games is still a disappointing total for a man who was mainly healthy. Niezgoda also bagged 7 in 17, but that came with a brace against the then lowly San Jose Earthquakes and the LA Galaxy, who literally everyone bagged goals against. Mora seems like their closest thing to a sure bet at striker, but maybe, just maybe that team would be better off with a two-striker approach? But that enters down a road that leads to many more questions than this article can address.
How much more is in Valeri, Blanco, and Chara’s legs?
This season will be trying. A bulk of games to come in the summer months, a shortened schedule with hectic traveling situations for most will certainly lead many teams down the path of rotation. But the Timbers are not a notably deep team. The striker position seems to be the deepest, but that’s about the only position outside of Right Back that most would consider to be “deep.” With CCL play on the calendar, an early start, and the fixture congestion, how much more are in their “Big Three’s” legs? The Timbers are incredibly poor in their record with Diego Chara and have never really addressed the depth behind him. Diego Valeri also is at a point where the questions of how much he can still contribute will be raised, which then pokes holes in the Timbers’ formational setup, as there is no true no. 10 to replace him.
We saw what happened with the Timbers in the loss of Sebastian Blanco last season. Their ability to beat up on a poor San Jose team (at the time of their matches), Real Salt Lake, Vancouver, and the LA Galaxy, certainly helped the Timbers stay above Minnesota in the standings. But in the run to the end of the season, you saw the cracks in their attack even with Valeri and Chara in the roster. If the older trio eventually begins to fade as a collective influence in Portland’s matches, questions will be asked of a group of players who will replace them that have yet to show us what they can do, and whether or not they can even do it at a high level. That should be of concern to the Rose City supporters.
Last Word 2021 Prediction
The Portland Timbers will get by Marathon but ultimately fall to Club America in the Quarterfinals of CCL. They will make the playoffs, but don’t be surprised if they are playing a first-round matchup on the road.