Portland Timbers’ Offseason Takes Shape

The awards have been handed out; the cup has been lifted by a Frankensteinish Jimmy Nielson and Sporting Kansas City, and the trade window is open. The MLS offseason has begun.

In 2012, the Portland Timbers were on a beeline for the offseason after John Spencer was fired – and it makes sense, retrospectively looking at the general managing moves Gavin Wilkinson made and the managing moves Gavin Wilkinson made while he was the interim coach. 

The Timbers were so eager to jettison over half their team in between 2012 and 2013 that they had three trades lined up to announce in the first day after the window opened, including the one that landed Will Johnson for the man who missed the decisive penalty at Sporting Park on Saturday, Lovel Palmer.

There will be no such shakeups after a dreamlike 2013 season in which the Timbers won the Western Conference, qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, and, you know, Gutted the Fish.

However, the Timbers have targeted three areas for improvement and player acquisition before the 2014 season opener on March 8th at Jeld-Wen Field against the Philadelphia Union. They’ve also begun the process of trimming the roster they already have, and working on contract extensions.

There was news yesterday – two players are gone. Ryan Miller, a seldom-used fullback, and fan favorite David Horst, an MLS Timbers original who wore his heart on his sleeve for three years in Portland.

Injuries and Gambians derailed Horst’s Portland career, as the logjam at center back left no room for a rehabilitating MLS journeyman.

And Portland wants another center back. Having struggled immensely on set pieces this season, the Timbers want more height and speed in the middle of defense. Both Mikael Silvestre and Pa Kah, the presumed starters going into 2014, are both 6’0 and not known for athletic ability.

The Timbers defense was good this year when they could keep the game in front of them, which is what Futty Danso and Kah were able to do at the end of the year. They struggled in their own penalty area and with teams who had speed and dynamism up top, and that’s unlikely to change with the existing roster of players.

But with four bonafide MLS starters on the 2014 roster, center back is not a position of immediate concern.

Center forward is. Ryan Johnson is out of contract, and although the Timbers have made an offer to bring him back, Johnson will most likely go overseas. Coming off one of his best years in MLS and nearing the peak of his career, its now or never for Johnson to go to Europe.

Frederic Piquionne is also without a deal. Piquionne was effective and his playing style well-suited to MLS. Portland wants to bring him back, but at 34, may be unwilling to commit top dollar. The situation remains fluid.  

Jose Valencia appears to be gone to Quito in Argentina. Although the Timbers won’t confirm that a deal has been made, there are pictures of Valencia signing for the Argentinian club. He will certainly not be in Portland in 2014, the only question is whether Valencia will be bought outright. Some reports say that there is a clause to buy the player in Valencia’s loan deal, an arrangement similar to the one Diego Valeri had last year in Portland.

The only forward who will be here for sure in 2014 is Maxi Urruti. The Timbers like Urruti, but he’s certainly not big enough to be a lone forward for the entire season. Portland is looking for a true target-man. The most likely scenario is that the Timbers being 2014 with their fourth starting forward in four years.

But after a reasonably effective hodgepodge of players up top last year, it’s unclear whether Portland are interested in signing a Designated Player striker.

Kris Boyd and Kenny Cooper not only flopped, they scarred the Timbers’ teams and collective psyche – Cooper with generally disappointing play, and Boyd with his trademark demonstrative and divisive whining.

The Timbers have absolutely no interest in a high-profile DP, but upgrading the forward position over last years’ output may require that caliber. Of course, Merritt Paulson will spring for a DP if that’s the best case, but how Portland – who do have some cap space – fills the position will be an interesting litmus test of where the team’s confidence is in Caleb Porter and their own success and winning culture.

The one other area of need is on the wing. The Timbers want a direct winger. Rodney Wallace is a winger, but he’s the only one on the roster. Kalif Alhassan mills and flits about, and Darlington Nagbe does the same thing. The result is that the attacking middle of the park has been congested for the Timbers at times, with players disappearing from the game.

Also with sparse speed at fullback, the Timbers’ attack is too one-dimensional against well-organized defenses. Alvas Powell will likely see more time next year, but Porter could use a winger who can dribble defenders one v. one and whip in crosses.

Steve Zakuani, who played for Porter at Akron is that kind of player. He has played his whole career in Seattle, but he’s certainly a player the Timbers will take a look at in the MLS Re-Entry Draft, of which the first phase is Thursday morning.

Speaking of Seattle, they’re doing exactly what the Timbers did to them at the end of this season. Gutting the Fish. Steven Frei is the new goalkeeper; high-profile names have been dropped, and both owner and retained manager have been throwing players under the bus.

There’s a big reshuffle going on amidst animosity and rancor. That was the Timbers last year. Not this offseason. Just minor changes and one or two new starters will come aboard a train that is headed towards being an early favorite for MLS Cup 2014.

About Arran Gimba