How often can you say this before the season even starts: crisis averted! But instead of writing about lifting the restrictions on players going where they want to go, let’s talk some football!
For the fourth consecutive year, the Portland Timbers open the regular season at home, as they welcome rivals Real Salt Lake to (sunny?!) Providence Park on Saturday. What better opportunity is there to state their intentions for 2015 than by knocking off the team that has for so long been a frustratingly unbeatable bête noir.
Jeff Cassar’s Real come to the Rose City at a crossroads in their second season post-Jason Kries. Although he departed for New York City FC prior to last season, the old coach’s shadow still looms large over Rio Tinto. This is due largely in part to the myriad of key players he brought over to the Big Apple, stripping the Claret and Cobalt of trusted depth. The exodus list is impressive, starting with the “NYC 3,” defender Chris Wingert and midfielders Ned Grabavoy and Sebastian Velasquez. In addition, they lost promising young “homegrown” defender, Carlos Salcedo, to C.D. Guadalajara, and forward Robbie Findley to Toronto FC. There’s also this Borchers fellow you may have heard of.
They may have taken heavy losses, but we know better than to assume this wasn’t part of RSL’s plan all along. As I wrote nearly a year ago: Real don’t lose personnel, they replace it. The biggest change from last year is not just who will be on the field, but how they will line up. Jeff Cassar has been working on transitioning away from RSL’s famous “diamond” formation, switching to a 4-3-3. Real boasts one of the premier youth academies in MLS, and this switch is undoubtedly taking place to better fit the players coming through the pipeline. It remains to be seen how the veterans handle a tectonic shift, especially on the defensive side. They will also have to deal with the absence of the dangerous Joao Plata, who fractured a bone in his foot back in January, and isn’t expected back until at least April.
Adapting to a new formation is difficult. Handing it a first official test against a hungry, unified Portland Timbers, and the boisterous, vociferous (rabid) Providence Park crowd is a dangerous prospect. But this is RSL, and they still have two MVP-caliber midfielders in Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales. They brought home veteran center back Jamison Olave, and boast certified Timbers killer, Alvaro Saborio. Then there’s Nick Rimando. It can’t be stressed enough how tough a time the Timbers have beating Nick Rimando. All told, Portland has beaten RSL only twice in their history, and last year’s 3-1 triumph in Utah was tainted by the absence of Beckerman and Rimando, who were away on USMNT duty. The Timbers have only beaten RSL with Rimando and Beckerman in the lineup once, in 2011.
Caleb Porter isn’t worried about such things. The Timbers are a tight-knit, cohesive group, and despite all of the injuries, are prepared to move confidently into the regular season. Defense, though, will dictate how this game goes, which focuses responsibility on Portland’s old Achilles heel: the back line. Thankfully, the Timbers have upgraded that area in a big way. Debutant ‘keeper, Adam Larsen Kwarasey, has looked comfortable in goal, and if anyone knows how to shut down RSL playmakers Morales and Saborio, it’s their old teammate, Nat Borchers. Kwarasey’s feet will play a big part in their own right, as the “sweeper keeper” will look to hit RSL on their most glaring weakness: the counter attack. One great ball from the Ghana international could turn defense into attack before Salt Lake are prepared to deal with it.
With Jack Jewsbury likely lining up alongside Diego Chara in holding midfield, the Timbers will be down to their Plan C in that spot. Cap’n Jack is a seasoned pro, understands the position, and has worked with Diego Chara plenty. He, in fact, picked up the assist on Kenny Cooper’s game winner on that fateful April day back in 2011.
On the offensive side, the Timbers are ready to break out. They may have only scored five goals in six preseason matches, but that’s the preseason, this is for real. Caleb Porter used the matches in Tucson and at the Simple Invitational to tinker with his attacking options, producing a number of positives, but two big questions as well. First, on the positive side, Darlington Nagbe looks locked in. He didn’t score in the preseason, but he shot where last season he would have passed. That kind of aggression and confidence, combined with Nags’ talent, will lead to goals. In that same vein, Rodney Wallace looks focused, mature, and appears to have put on some muscle. The versatile winger is one of the more underrated threats in MLS, and if the Timbers are going to hit RSL on the counter attack, RodWall will play a big part with his speed and crossing ability. Finally, there is the emergence of Dairon Asprilla. The Colombian, who emerged from the grainy YouTube highlights of Alianza Petrolera, has been a breath of fresh air and—hopefully—a motivational shove for Gaston Fernandez.
Which leads us to the first big question: who starts, Gaston or Asprilla? Caleb Porter has said all along that he wanted to use the preseason to gauge what works in the absence of Diego Valeri. Based on that logic, Asprilla has earned his spot. But this is professional sports, and thus conventional wisdom dictates that the veteran, who re-signed with the Timbers this offseason, will get the nod. Seasoned pros like the 31-year old Argentine, don’t always give “110%” in the preseason, and it wouldn’t be unlike “La Gata” to lurk in the weeds, only to pounce when the time is right.
The next and final major question for the Timbers regards Fanendo Adi. The big Nigerian shows flashes of brilliance, but they are just that: flashes. Against Stabæk, Adi showed deft touch, and the ability to (at 6’4”) “sneak” in and poach a goal off of a perfect Jorge Villafaña cross. Hopefully we’ll be re-using that phrase a lot this year. For the Timbers to be effective in the offensive third, Adi needs to be active and involved for his full stint on the pitch. How long that stint ends up being will depend on how focused the Timbers’ DP striker is. If Adi looks too passive, expect Maxi Urruti to replace him sooner rather than later.
Real Salt Lake broke out in their fifth season, winning MLS Cup. As we enter Portland’s fifth season, the developmental mirror with their Saturday opponents takes center stage. In order for the Timbers to emerge as a perennial powerhouse, they must finally scale the mountain.
There is no more fitting a way to start this season, with these expectations, than by beating RSL.