Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese has already got his offseason recruitment underway as the Timbers look to go again and challenge for the MLS Cup in 2021. The Timbers’ heart-breaking penalty shoot-out defeat to FC Dallas in November’s first round of the post-season playoffs was a bitter pill for everyone to swallow at Providence Park. The Timbers were one of the post-season favorites to challenge for the MLS Cup but underperformed when it mattered most.
There were some unfortunate frailties lurking within the Timbers roster, not least defensively. Portland conceded a staggering 15 times in the closing 15 minutes of matches last season, with Dallas’ late equalizer also proving decisive in the eventual extra time and penalty shoot-out. It’s difficult to know whether their inability to close out games late on was a mentality problem or a personnel issue. However, the Timbers’ most recent moves in the transfer market suggest that Savarese believes personnel to be the defining factor.
It’s a revolving door for Portland’s defense at present
That’s because Savarese has moved to trade out two former mainstays of the Portland backline in recent weeks. Pre-Christmas, Portland managed to complete the trades of Marco Farfan and Julio Cascante. The latter arrived in Oregon back in 2018 from Costa Rica and made 51 competitive appearances in a Timbers jersey since joining from Deportivo Saprissa. Although Savarese described Cascante as a “competitive player”, the Timbers’ general manager Gavin Wilkinson said that Cascante “needed a new environment” to flourish and grow as a player, having discussed the issue at length during the club’s “end of year meetings”.
It is always great to see homegrown prospects make their mark on the first team and defender Marco Farfan certainly did that. He became the first homegrown product of the Portland academy to cement a first-team place but his decision to “seek a new challenge” in 2021 with a move to LAFC is further proof that Savarese is keen to shake things up for the better in the defense.
The Timbers had been tracking Argentinian left back Claudio Bravo for several months and it was little surprise to Portland fans when it was announced the 23-year-old had agreed a switch from Argentinian Premier Division outfit Banfield. Bravo’s multi-year contract is a statement of intent from Portland, capturing an agile, mobile full back with experience in the Argentinian U23 national side. Most importantly, Savarese believes he has a great “balance of offense and defense”.
Villafaña’s exit marks the end of an era for Portland
Bravo’s arrival was always likely given the recent announcement that 31-year-old defender Jorge Villafaña had been traded to LA Galaxy for a first-round draft pick. It’s a symbolic trade given that Villafaña was at the heart of the Portland defense when the Timbers won their first MLS Cup in 2015. For many long-serving fans it will be sad not to see him in a green jersey next season, but it further reinforces Savarese’s ambition to reshape and redefine the Timbers’ spine.
At the other end of the field, Savarese is also working hard to retain the services of forward Felipe Mora. After a stunning loan spell which saw him bag seven goals and two assists in 19 games, Portland are trying hard to secure him permanently, with his current club Pumas UNAM in Mexico’s Liga MX keen to retain a percentage of his rights. Chilean international Mora is the kind of “box office” addition that Portland need if they are to be considered genuine MLS Cup challengers in 2021, teaming up with Jeremy Ebobisse, who is considered one of the most promising young forwards in the MLS.
Next season will be the 26th campaign of the MLS, with the league expanding from 26 to 27 teams thanks to the arrival of Austin FC as the latest expansion Fans are eagerly awaiting the release of the futures market for the 2021 MLS Cup, with exclusive deals and MLS wagering options set to be available from fast-growing US sports betting operator, FOX Bet, who currently serve fans across Colorado, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan. They and many other US sportsbooks are likely to rate Portland favorably if they can rebuild at the back and maintain the services of Mora in the final third.
Other likely contenders will be Portland’s bitter rivals Seattle Sounders, who were pipped to the post in last season’s MLS Cup final by Columbus Crew. Meanwhile Toronto FC can rarely be discounted given that they have the highest player payroll in the MLS and are recent MLS Cup winners back in 2017.