The Portland Timbers get the 2017 MLS season started on Friday, March 3 with a home match against Minnesota United. The Timbers have the attacking talent that can repeat the success of 2015. They also have a back line that is capable of hemorrhaging goals and running the team into the ground like last year.
Three Questions for the 2017 Portland Timbers Season
Yes, there certainly are many questions facing the 2017 Portland Timbers. Here are the three most important ones.
What Will Happen With the Back Line?
The biggest difference between Portland’s success in 2015 and their failures in 2016 was the inconsistent and poor play by the back four. They went from conceding the third fewest goals in the entire league during their title run to having the worst defensive record in the Western Conference last year. Injuries played a major role in this downfall. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell were a very stable combination during that glorious 2015 run. In 2016, however, both of them missed significant time and none of the replacements brought in were capable of holding down the fort.
Ridgewell returns as the defensive leader in 2017, but there are questions on who his partner will be. Lawrence Olum figures to get the start on opening night, but it remains to be seen if he is the permanent option. The only other potential option on the roster right now would be 24 year old Nigerian Gbenga Arokoyo, who made one substitute appearance last season.
There isn’t really enough time for general manager Gavin Wilkinson to go out and find another central defender and get him ready in time for the start of the season, but the Timbers need to find somebody back there. Expect Olum to start next Friday night, but also expect a new face to join the unit by the end of the month. If no reinforcements arrive, it could be a long year of leaky defensive play.
Will Wing Play Improve Over Last Year?
The Timbers goal scoring actually went up from 2015 to 2016, but it wasn’t because their wing play was anything to write home about. The play along the outside was another rotating cast of players who couldn’t quite get the job done. Darlington Nagbe was excellent along the right, but Portland failed to get anyone to stick around opposite the USMNT newcomer. Lucas Melano, Dairon Asprilla, Jack Barmby, Darren Mattocks and even Ned Grabavoy all saw time on one of the wings and none of them were up to snuff.
That is where Sebastian Blanco comes in. The Argentine winger can play on either wing and was already developing a relationship with Diego Valeri in his first preseason game. Portland’s new Designated Player will provide delicious passes for Valeri and Fanendo Adi in the middle of the pitch and could score a goal or two of his own from the outside. Provided he doesn’t get hurt, he should be the very simple answer to this question.
Also helping out here will be the full backs. Alvas Powell has always been a threat from the back, but Vytas Andriuškevičius looks to be turning into a threat as well. He had four assists in the preseason, including two wonderful feeds against the Vancouver Whitecaps. These two can add another dynamic to the attack by allowing Blanco and Nagbe to play more centrally. They will just have to be sure to track back well and not leave the central defenders out to dry.
Who Holds Down Central Midfield?
Diego Chara has a stranglehold on one holding midfield role in the Timbers 4-2-3-1. However, he is sure to miss some time through suspension (he already has a red card in the playoffs) and will need a partner to work alongside him. He most efficient counterpart last year was Jack Jewsbury, who has retired. David Guzman, who came on from Deportivo Saprissa in Costa Rica, has done well in the preseason and will probably start the opener.
The trouble starts when Chara inevitably misses time through injury or, more likely, yellow/red card suspension. Lawrence Olum is the obvious replacement, but he may have to start at the back if a consistent option in central defense never comes in. Ben Zemanski is still on the roster, but he was nothing special in 11 starts last season.
Much like the start of the last two seasons, the Timbers could be anything from a playoff contender capable of making a cup run to bringing up the rear in a very competitive Western Conference. If Caleb Porter and Gavin Wilkinson can find the answers to these vital questions (particularly the one about defending) than we could see the TImbers deep in the playoffs like 2015. If they twiddle their thumbs and go with that they have now, we are likely in for a run that comes up short in frustrating fashion like 2016.