With the 2016 MLS Season about to begin, the Portland Timbers and their polarizing coach, Caleb Porter, are looking to reignite the fire that carried them to the 2015 MLS Cup title.  Pre-season is well underway, and anyone watching pre-season MLS soccer, bless your hearts, can tell you that Portland has been a mixed bag.  So let’s get into what Portland’s faithful fan-base, the Timbers Army, can look forward to in 2016 with the official HotFooty Portland Timbers Season Preview.

Reasons to be excited:

It never hurts to be defending MLS Cup Champions.  In the 20 years since the MLS Cup has been around, defending champs have repeated 3 times and at least made the playoffs 17 times.  Not bad odds of having a successful season to back up their Cup victory.  You also can’t underestimate the atmosphere in Portland as a factor either. They sell out every single home game at their dedicated stadium, have a ‘mascot’ that chainsaws lumber named Timber Joey, and their record shows it.  They only lost 3 at home in 2015, but 8 on the road.  In 2014 it was 3 losses at home and 6 on the road.  Whatever the Timbers Army is doing, they should keep doing it.

It also doesn’t hurt to have one of the more accomplished young coaches in the MLS. Caleb Porter, who turns 41 this month, has had a career dotted with awards and championships.  His head-coaching career started at University of Akron, where in 7 seasons his squad finished first in their conference all 7 years, made the NCAA tournament 6 of those years with 2 Finals appearances and 1 glorious NCAA D1 Championship over Louisville. His resume took a hit with a mostly disastrous turn as the U23 USMNT coach, failing to reach the 2012 Olympics, but he’s recovered quite nicely as the Timbers skipper since then.  Coach of the year in 2013, Playoffs in 2 of 3 years, and a Championship last year, things are looking bright for Porter.  He has had his share of controversy, and isn’t afraid to show some passion out on the pitch, but as far as I’m concerned he’s one of the top managers in the MLS.

One last reason to be excited, and this may be way too early to tell, is the emergence of the young bench player Neco Brett during this pre-season. Drafted late in the second round of the 2016 draft, the Robert Morris graduate and third team D1 All-American, showed some serious speed and skills in the game against Dynamo and really impressed in the match against the Sounders.  Granted, these are basically meaningless games, but if this kid can make the first team squad, look out for some late game appearances from him during the year to see if he can make his mark at the MLS level. Check out this bit of skill from the pre-season match against the Sounders.

 Reasons to be nervous:

The majority of the first team which won the Cup just a few months ago is back, but their performance in pre-season has been similar to the Super Bowl commercials this year.  A lot of head scratching followed by brief moments of Seal singing about post-game sex.  Or something like that.  Either way, it’s been all over the place for the Timbers first team.  They looked great against the Dynamo, then flat against the Sounders.  It’s mostly been an offensive problem though and sometimes that’s just down to not having your partnerships down this early into the season.I’m not sure it’s a big enough sample size to really worry just yet, but hopefully they can show some signs of consistency in the next few weeks.

Keys to the season:

Defensive Midfield:

One crucial aspect to any solid defense is the defensive midfielder. They protect the back four defenders by intercepting passes, making tackles up the pitch, getting back quickly when being counter attacked and getting the ball distributed from the back smartly. Lucky for the Timbers, they’ve got plenty of good options.  Diego Chara, the clear starter from last year, has veteran Jack Jewsbury and the newly rehabilitated Ben Zemanski to back him up. The Timbers tend to run with one defensive mid in the formation, so having two healthy and first team quality backups is huge. It allows Caleb Porter to be flexible in his formation and allows for plenty of cover incase of an injury.

The Nagbe / Valeri offensive midfield connection:

Darlington Nagbe, a club veteran, has traditionally played on the wing, but when Porter felt like the club needed an offensive spark in the run up to the 2015 playoffs, he moved Nagbe inside to partner with Valeri. They haven’t lost since.  Nagbe’s style of collecting the ball deep and running at defenders has allowed Valeri to position himself a bit higher up the pitch.  He can focus on finding space between the defenders and either delivering the final pass or scoring himself.  It’s a combination that has worked well for the squad and Porter will likely rely on them heavily to create the Timbers attack.  If they aren’t clicking, it’s going to be a long season.

Finding Goals Up Top:

On the offensive front, things are a bit more unsteady, but not terrible by any means. Rodney Wallace, longtime stalwart winger for the Timbers, has left.  So has Maximiliano Urruti. Urruti is a talented player but was in a contract year and would have been a heavy contract to pick up. With other decent young options, they let him go.  One of those options is Dairon Asprilla, the Columbian born winger with pretty good speed and skills was splitting time with Urruti last year.  The Timbers are hoping he can step into the limelight this year, partnering with Fanendo Adi and Lucas Melano up top of the formation.  A new potential option up top is the recently signed Jack McInerney. A journey man of sorts at only 23, Jack was signed in January to back up Fanendo Adi. He has faired well in pre-season as well as during his six year MLS career, but it’s left to be seen if he can click with his new squad.

With the talent the Timbers are returning, some of the new acquisitions, and the recent success of the club, I think it’s going to be a top notch season for the Timbers.  Let us know in the comments what your predictions for the upcoming season is, and if you have any good insights into the club, let us know.