As training camp opens for the Portland Timbers, it should be the dawn of a new day. An opportunity to see new faces, the return of familiar ones, and remember those no longer present. It should be a chance to turn the page on the past and move into the future. This team seems to be having trouble doing that. As the team settles in for a bit of an unsettled training camp, here are three things they need to accomplish before the regular season starts and two things that they’ve done well this offseason.
What they’ve done well:
1) Said farewell to Diego Valeri in proper fashion. Valeri is a Portland legend, but it was clear for most of last season that he did not have much gas left in the tank and that his time with the team was coming to an end. Those situations can be messy, but both sides handled the situation with class as he largely took on a reserve role during the latter half of the season. The only thing missing was a fairy tale ending in the MLS Cup. As the team opened training camp, they finished a transfer for El Maestro to Lanus, his boyhood club in Argentina, where he can wrap up his professional career in his native country. That the Timbers were able to get a transfer fee for a player whose time in MLS was reaching its end was a coup. They also managed to end the on-field relationship with Valeri on largely good terms, and I would not be surprised to see Valeri return to the city or the Green and Gold in some capacity shortly.
2) Signed Diego Chara to a contract extension. The “other Diego” is now “the last Diego standing.” Chara is a midfield stalwart and has one of the highest motors in all professional sports. I’ve never seen anyone track back up and down and switch from defense to offense, or vice versa, as needed, so quickly. His new contract is richly deserved, and hopefully, he’ll close out his career wearing the captain’s armband for the green and gold.
1) Wrap up the Sebastian Blanco saga. Blanco is one of the big reasons why the Timbers made it to the final last season. Despite only appearing in 24 games, he was third on the team in goals scored, tied for the lead in assists, and was an overall dynamic presence every time he was on the pitch. He gutted his way through injury toward the end of the season and the playoffs and put the team on his back at times. Heading into the offseason and free agency, it seemed all but certain he would sign a new contract with the team. By all accounts, he loves Portland, and the Timbers need him. Everything seemed to be falling into place, then it all fell apart. The team reportedly inserted new conditions and injury protections into their contract offer at the last moment. Blanco’s agents took umbrage at them being included with no prior awareness. For the last two week’s everything has gone dark. Blanco hasn’t signed, and the team has already started training camp, meaning that whatever negotiations are taking place are clearly more drawn out than anticipated. However, on the plus side, Blanco has not signed with another team, so either other teams are also spooked at his injury history, or he wants to return to the Timbers and is simply making sure he gets a deal he considers favorable. Either way, the Timbers need to do whatever they need to get Blanco back in the fold.
2) Sort through the goalkeeper pile. In American football, there’s a saying that “If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterback,” meaning that if you are trying to pick between two players, it’s probably because neither one is good enough to be Number One. The same holds true for goalkeepers. The Timbers need to replace Steve Clark, who has been an absolute stalwart for them over the past few years. To do so, they have four goalkeepers on the roster in training camp, with veteran keeper David Bingham joining returning backups Jeff Attinella, Aljaz Ivacic, and Hunter Sulte. Sulte was thrown into the fire due to injuries last year and struggled but could still have a bright future. Attinella and Ivacic are known quantities. While they can step in in short spurts, neither has shown they can be a starter over the course of an entire campaign. That means the spot may be Bingham’s to lose. He was out of the league last season but did perform well as a starter in LA and San Jose. If Bingham can’t seize the starting spot, the Timbers may be culling through the transfer or waiver wire to find someone who can hold down the space between the pipes- the exact same situation that led them to bring in Clark in 2018.
3) Stop doing stupid stuff. Following the retirement and lauding of Valeri and coming off a championship game appearance, the team should be riding high. But it can’t escape some of last season’s shadows or get out of its own way. When allegations of abuse involving former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley came to light last season, the team was slow to react. Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson covered for Riley at the time and is still in the building, running operations for the Timbers. Owner Merritt Paulson claimed the team fired Riley because of the allegations, but that doesn’t explain him buddying up to Riley on social media after moving on from the coach. Further, in a well-written piece for ESPN, Caitlyn Murray documents supporters groups’ efforts to hold the front office accountable. Paulson’s response is to freeze them out and end meetings by the front office with supporters groups.
That tactic might work if you have a small, apathetic fan base. But not when you have the loudest, proudest, most visible supporters group in the league. Between the team’s response to the Riley scandal and the bungling of the Blanco negotiations, all signs point to disarray at the top of the club. That doesn’t even mention the Thorns wasting a first-round draft pick because they drafted a player who was revealed to have posted and endorsed trans and homophobic tweets recently ans has now been cut loose by the club.
It’s been a messy offseason, but it’s a mess the Timbers still have time to set right. If they can do so, they can set their sites where they belong: On getting back to the top of the league.