The news came in like a flurry of hailstones yesterday: comings and goings, wheelings and dealings – general happenings and buzz around the Portland Timbers not felt since the beginning of 2012, when so much was possible for last year's team. Now, with new coach Caleb Porter applying his stamp to the Timbers, and the club being reshaped in his mold, Portland seems ready to put the spilt milk of 2012 behind them and look towards a future that can be as bright as the one not taken last year.
There was never any doubt that the Portland Timbers were going to have to make drastic changes to their roster in this short MLS offseason if they wanted to return to respectability in 2013. We knew there would be a shakeup of the back-line, changes up front and in the midfield, and a new feel to the club. We just didn't know with how much vigor, candor, or spunk the Timbers would go about making these changes. We knew Caleb Porter would want to try and mold the team into his style of play, we just didn't know how much reign he would have to work with GM Gavin Wilkinson still in the mix. Yesterday, with a resounding bang, the Timbers gave their statement of intent this offseason and going forward.
In Major League Soccer, teams cannot announce trades and player movement until the Monday after MLS Cup, won with a flourish by the LA Galaxy, as David Beckham and potentially Landon Donovan waltz out of the league and into the sunset with yet another title. It was strongly rumored that the Timbers had already made trades and couldn't announce them until Monday, and when the MLS offseason window opened, the announcements came fast and furious.
First, the Timbers traded allocation money to Sporting Kansas City for fullback Michael Harrington. Harrington, like skipper Jack Jewsbury, had been a fixture in Kansas City for years before falling out of the first team last year. While Harrington's best years may be behind him, he certainly fits the mold of the type of full-back Porter wants – a versatile player who can make overlapping runs supporting the attack in the 4-3-3. Harrington may have plenty of minutes, because the Timbers did away with almost every full-back on the roster, trading Kosuke Kimura to New York for allocation money and releasing Steven Smith, Lovel Palmer and Steve Purdy. Rodney Wallace was put in the re-entry draft while the Timbers try to negotiate a new deal with the former Maryland star for substantially less money.
Kimura, Purdy, Palmer, and Smith were the kind of players that were simply not talented enough, and weighing the team down. An outsider, Porter, could easily see that. While they all gave honest, hard-working efforts in Portland, a serious team needed to let them go, which is exactly what the Timbers did.
The biggest move Portland made Monday was sweeping into the Real Salt Lake yard sale for midfield engine Will Johnson, a tough, smart, hard-working player that had been the glue of the RSL midfield for the last few years. Johnson is the kind of mentally strong, physically strong player the Timbers sorely needed last year when things went south. The central midfield is also a proven winner in the league, and on what will be a young team, that experience could be invaluable.
Of course, as is always the case with a roster dump, one of the good guys will be shipped out with the bathwater. Monday, that player was Eric Brunner, a rock in the Timbers defense and one of the three building blocks – along with Troy Perkins and Jewsbury – for the Timbers MLS franchise. Brunner goes to Houston, where he'll be in a fantastic organization, closer to home in Ohio, and reunited with old friend Adam Moffat. With David Horst, Andrew John-Baptiste, and Hayner Mosquera, Porter must have felt that Brunner was surplus to requirements. Fair or not, this is a proactive team, sweeping in an era of change.
We can already see the kind of players Caleb Porter wants to build his team around: Savvy, tough guys who are physically able. It is expected that Porter will play an attacking 4-3-3, and both Harrington and Johnson fit into that system. Portland is placing an emphases on mental toughness as they construct the roster this time around, learning – much like the Trail Blazers did almost a decade ago – that chemistry, steel and smarts are invaluable.
Gavin Wilkinson, who was always the wild-card in all of this, has promised more moves on the way in the coming days. It's rumored that Kris Boyd is being shopped, Franck Songo'o could go back to Europe, and Jonathan Bornstein and Robbie Findley – both US national team vets who started games in the 2010 World Cup – players who the Timbers selected in the MLS expansion draft all those days ago, could be interested in a return stateside. Needless to say, this will be a totally different side on opening day in March.
There was a lot of things I saw that I liked Monday, the team's aggressiveness, and Porter's style and judgment, but the best thing I saw was what Gavin Wilkinson told Dan Itel of MLSSoccer.com: “The general manager’s job is to get the pieces for the head coach to help the success of the organization, and it’s about the organization,” Wilkinson said. “And it’s also about giving Caleb the pieces he wants to work with, the pieces he thinks will contribute the way he sees them contributing.”
To me, that sounds a lot like Gavin admitting he failed running the team in 2012, and he's letting Porter call the shots. That's the type of humility and effectiveness that would take Wilkinson off the pedestal of public enemy number one. For the first time in a long time, there's a lot to be encouraged with concerning this Portland Timbers team. Monday was only the beginning.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports