As the Portland Timbers continue their preseason tournament tonight against Portmore United, a Jamaican club, nobody would blame fans for being nervous. The 2013 season was close to perfect. "Now, the Timbers will have a massive target on their back each time they take the field," says John Strong, NBC Sports' lead Major League Soccer announcer.
The team made the MLS playoffs for the first time, after two years of disappointment. It went from blowing leads to mastering comebacks. New coach Caleb Porter's possession-oriented game plan got a lot of the credit for the team's turnaround. "It's easy on the eye," ESPN soccer columnist Jeff Carlisle says. âAnd you like to see that kind of style rewarded.â
If the Timbers thrive this year, the team's early struggles will be regarded as merely a teething period. If they flounder, though, Porter's first season will seem a fluke.
Here are some factors that could decide which storyline plays out this season.
Three reasons the Timbers could be even better this year:
No World Cup players.
The World Cup comes around every four years and vacuums the biggest stars out of MLS, then spits them back out a month later, exhausted and unfocused. This year, each of the major contenders for the title will lose a key man to the cup, except Portland. In both of the past two World Cup years, the MLS Cup winner's players logged zero World Cup minutes.
Two team newcomers can pass.
Portland has signed players who fit into Porter's passing-centered approach. In the preseason, two players signed from Argentina—striker Gastón Fernández from Estudiantes and center back Norberto Paparatto from Tigre—stood out for their shrewd passing. Both told reporters they signed with Portland because Porter sold them on the Timbers' style. "He talked to me about his style of play," Paparatto told MLS's website Jan. 28. "I was very much interested in the opportunity to come and play for him."
Darlington Nagbe could be improved.
MLS named Nagbe the best young player in the league last year, and it's easy to see why. The 23-year-old Liberian's squat, powerful build allows him to take the ball past players at will, and his shooting and passing are deadly. Thing is, he still thinks he has room to improve. "I feel like my possession game is good, but I could be more dangerous and take more chances, take more risks," he told the MLS website.
Three questions the team still needs to answer:
What's behind the Great Wall?
Last season, the central defensive partnership of Mamadou "Futty" Danso and Pa Modou Kah earned them the nickname "the Great Wall of Gambia," although ESPN'S Carlisle thinks one reason they were so impressive is that Portland's ball control masked their deficiencies. Both are over 30, old for soccer. Nevertheless, the Timbers got rid of three center backs in the offseason, signing only Paparatto. That puts the Timbers a couple of injuries from desperation.
Can FernÃ¡ndez and Diego Valeri connect?
MLS has a history of success with insouciant, creative players from Argentina. Valeri led the Timbers in goals and assists in 2013, making him the latest superstar in that mold. But with Valeri absent in the preseason, Fernández took his spot as the team's playmaker and looked like a natural. Much will depend whether they can strike up a relationship—or just get in one another's way.
Will team doctors see more of Steve Zakuani than the Timbers Army does?
The Timbers gambled when they signed Zakuani from Seattle in the offseason. He might not be the same player who scored 10 goals in his first season with the Sounders. A Colorado Rapids player shattered Zakuani's leg in 2011, and since then the Timbers' acquisition has spent more time on the injured list than on the soccer field. "If he's back, what an awesome addition," Strong says. "If not, they have plenty of other quality players at his position."