The Portland Timbers played their last preseason match last Saturday night, drawing 1-1 with Swedish club AIK. The score-line was misleading. Portland's starters turned in a scintillating, dazzling performance that gave the almost 15,000 fans inside Jeld-Wen Field the lovely feeling that each time the Timbers attacked, they were going to score.
Sure, Portland only put one in the net against AIK, on a savory goal from new left-back Michael Harrington. But the quality of the play – the mesmerizing passing chopped into zinging runs and twinkling dribbling - combined with each Timbers attacker's serene composure on the ball, made last season's disaster seem as far away as, well, Sweden. It was only the preseason. The defense still looks shaky. There will be growing pains. But good golly, this 2013 Portland Timbers team is pretty darn exciting.
The first step to the football Portland played last Sunday, a brand Caleb Porter was known for at Akron – the Timbers new coach called the performance "electric" – was purging the team of the poor players who dragged the squad into the muck last season. It's not like all the 2012 Timbers players were bad – Darlington Nagbe, Diego Chara and Kalif Alhasson, all of whom were fantastic against AIK were here last year – it's just that the good players were tugged down by players whose skills just weren't up to MLS standards.
Gavin Wilkinson was too close to the team – he acquired and coached all the players on last year's roster – and Porter's fresh perspective allowed a total overhaul. It wasn't so much the coaching of Spencer and Wilkinson that killed the Timbers last year – although it very poor – it was mostly the poor quality of play that brought the team down week to week. Those problems appear to have been fixed.
The Timbers are set in goal, where Donovan Ricketts is playing his best soccer for three years, since his LA Galaxy team made the 2010 MLS Cup Final. Ricketts, full of confidence these days, appears to have yanked himself out of the steady decline he was playing himself into last year in Montreal. Ricketts' backup, Milos Kukoc, was acquired from Toronto in the Ryan Johnson trade, and has MLS experience as well.
Defense is the biggest question mark. The Timbers are loaded at center-back, but in numbers only, not skill. Andrew John-Baptiste looks to have the inside track to start alongside the venerable Mikael Silvestre – a superb signing – but David Horst, Futty Danso, Hayner Mosquera, and surprisingly solid rookie Dylan Tucker-Gagnas are all shooting for a look-in. Silvestre will pilot whoever he is playing with on the back-line, and his leadership, experience and skill will be massive in helping John-Baptiste grow up under MLS fire. Of the other center-backs, none except Tucker-Gagnas look worth keeping. Horst, Futty, and Mosquera are mediocre at best. It's likely Porter will get rid of one or more of them before the season is over.
For all their center-backs, the Timbers have no depth at full-back. Michael Harrington, who will start on the left, is a veteran player who has spent his entire MLS career with Kansas City. Harrington can hold his own, but he lost his place with SKC last year and isn't a standout player. On the other side, it's Ryan Miller, who was once a bright young prospect at Notre Dame. Miller saw his career fizzle into the second division of Swedish football for the last three seasons. He may be able to rediscover some of his old potential, but he's already been released from MLS twice. The only cover for Miller and Harrington is Rodney Wallace, a subpar holdover from the previous two years. Best case scenario, the Timbers defense grows into their positions and plays reasonably well this year, but it's more likely that Silvestre will be trying to hold together a rag-tag unit. The shaky defense, coupled with a dynamite offense could make for a lot of shootouts in 2013.
The offense is dynamite, dynamic signings blended with old dynamo. The Timbers midfield is so deep and talented, last year's captain and standout performer Jack Jewsbury will have a hard time making the bench. Will Johnson, a younger, fresher Jewsbury, will take the armband this year and play a holding role coupled with Diego Chara, who has continued to get more comfortable each year in MLS in the middle. Johnson is effective, while Chara can play two ways and is becoming one of the better passers on the team. Behind the starters are Jewsbury and an old Akron charge of Porter's, Ben Zemanski.
Further up the pitch are the Timbers two most exciting players: new designated player Diego Valeri and the face of the team, Darlington Nagbe. Valeri is a twinkling Argentine with experience playing for FC Porto and the Argentina national team. At his best, Valeri is a wizard with the ball, and sitting behind the lone striker, it will be his job to pull the strings of the Timbers attack. With Valeri's presence, Nagbe will be pushed out to the wing. Nagbe knows Porter and his system well from college, and looks more confident than ever with his abilities. His balance in possession of the ball is outstanding, and the basic skills are already in place for him to become a league star. This season, he'll look to be more incisive and score more goals.
People inside the Timbers organization say that Kalif Alhasson, who seems to be winning the race to start on the opposite wing of Nagbe, has come into 2013 with a brand new attitude. Alhasson was far too moody and inconsistent in 2011 and 2012, but he's one of the best dribblers of the game, and his play can literally lift a crowd off its feet. Sal Zizzo will be the first man off the bench for the wing positions. The quartet of midfielders have to be humming on the save wavelength to succeed in Porter's possession system, and part of the reason the AIK game was so great to see was because to the new unit seems to have gelled and found necessary chemistry after only one preseason.
In Porter's 4-3-3, which only uses one striker, competition for the spot at the top of the formation will be fierce. MLS veteran Ryan Johnson, who scored a hat-trick in his first ever game at Jeld-Wen Field, is a physical, athletic presence, who has ten goals in him this season. Jose Valencia, on the other hand, is more of an unknown. Valencia was signed as a DP last year from Columbia, but sustained a knee injury before he could hit the field in Portland and missed almost the entire season. He’s a fierce, young gun though, and it's easy to see why Wilkinson signed him with so much aplomb last year he missed the fact that he was carrying a season-ending injury.
Another wild card is Frederic Piquionne, a Premier League veteran with natural skill and finishing ability. Piquionne is another good find from the Timbers, although he is a player certainly on the downside of his career.
If there is one word that is prominent throughout a preview of the Timbers 2013 attacking corps, it's skill – the quality that the Timbers lacked in so many areas last year. It's also potential; the Timbers have quite a few players who at their best are fantastic, but didn't rise to their best under the previous regimes. It's up the biggest x-factor of the year, Caleb Porter, to get the best out of his well-assembled team.
Porter has hit Portland with a bang. He is a confident fellow, which is obvious both from his aggressive player-personnel moves and his forthright dealings with the media. But it's Porter's style of play that should have Timbers fans excited. Whereas John Spencer, an old-school Scot, and Gavin Wilkinson, not innovative enough to come up with anything else, played an ugly long-ball style, Porter has a slick passing, possession, pressing game that worked to the tune of a national championship at Akron.
The free-flowing football is great to watch; the first time in Portland we are going to see the truly beautiful game. The passing triangles – ala Barcelona – and attacking focus will get the best out of Portland's offense. It's a main part of the reason Porter was hired last August. If he can work the same wonders with the defense he has with the offense, the playoffs could beckon in Portland.
Whatever happens, it's going to be a fun year. That much is certain. It will be a fun year that has a real chance to explode into a successful year. Portland still has the best fans, the best atmosphere and the best supporters group in MLS. Now the fans that have stuck it out through thick and very thin, while renewing their season tickets a rate of 97% the last two years and still are waiting for season tickets on a list that is thousands deep can have a team to be proud of. Out with the old, and in with the new – coaches, players, kits, you name it. The 2013 regular season starts this Sunday against New York at Jeld-Wen Field, and from the first kick to final kick, these Timbers should give us quite a ride.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports