Through the Looking Glass – Defending the MLS Cup

First and foremost – No rest for the wicked.

portland-timbers-mls-cup

Today, for your consideration, is my view on how this next season begins. As much as I want to share some thoughts with you about how this season just ended there have been many before me who have already done a great job doing that. For me, when you are a Champion, there is no yesterday, it’s all about tomorrow…

The trail of transactions began quickly, on December 7th, Monday past, around 10 minutes past five in the evening the Timbers made a number of announcements about their playing roster for next year.

Along the way we’ve heard confirmation about Jorge Villafana, rumor and propaganda about Will Johnson, as well as knowing that both Rodney Wallace and Ben Zemanski are being offered bonafide contracts.

Jorge Villafana – When I first saw him playing for Chivas USA a couple of years ago he stood out to me as being the best player on that team. He showed vision, the right mentality, first touch, quickness, passing skills, and an intuition to be in the right place at the right time. Throughout the course of this season Jorge has, in my view, been the most consistent player on the pitch. Is it any wonder that his performance was touted as being “Man of the Match like” in the MLS Championship Cup? If you ever listened to the Rose City Soccer Show you know my views on Jorge. So for me… I will be sorry (very selfishly disappointed) to see him go and he will leave some inordinately large boots to fill on the pitch. If there is anything of concern, as the Timbers look to build anew for next season, it’s getting someone to replace Jorge Villafana! And the player most likely to miss Jorge Villafana the most is Liam Ridgewell!

Will Johnson – The right player joining the Timbers at the right time to help set the stage for Caleb Porter and his philosophical approach to the game. I am sorry to see him go, yet through the course of this season as well as last year (even after his injury) there were times when I watched the Timbers and thought – the chemistry or balance of the team isn’t right – the Timbers would do well in some instances and then go all pear-shaped in other instances. I don’t specifically blame Will Johnson for this (it’s a team game) but I do sense that the imbalance changed considerably when Darlington Nagbe was moved into the center of the pitch and Diego Chara was given the singular role in the single pivot. I wish him nothing but the very best as he looks to find a new home for his family. In terms of finding a direct replacement for Will Johnson, I don’t see the specific need in his case – not because you don’t want a player with his mentality – you do – but since we’ve seen a bonafide contract offer for Ben Zemanski the Timbers still have four solid central defending midfielders – and with roster limits and salary cap type issues it simply doesn’t seem reasonable to have five CDM’s that could start.

With those thoughts offered on Jorge and Will where are the gaps the Timbers are likely to try and close this off-season?

Defense – You can’t win a championship without defense! Whoever comes in to replace Villafana, be it an internal player or someone who’s currently external to the organization, you can bet their primary focus will be to learn how to play a supporting role in both the single and double pivot.

  • Alvas Powell – He’s done well this year in getting a better understanding on positional play – when he stops having to rely (specifically on his speed) to shut down an attacker he will truly have blossomed – hopefully that transition occurs this next year!
  • Nat Borchers – While I view Jorge Villafana as the most consistent player on the Timbers this year there can be much argument that Nat Borchers was as well. And it’s likely Liam Ridgewell can thank Nat Borchers for much of his own success as Jorge Villafana. If there was ever a truly superb acquisition last off season it was bringing in Nat Borchers; the bearded one, while a bit aged it must be said, did more than his fair share in being in the right place at the right time to save, or score, a goal or two.
  • Liam Ridgewell – Here’s where I’m a bit squishy. To be fair Liam has done well this year but to be honest I think his success is more about the success of those around him than him personally. Yes, it takes a stolid presence and grist-driven skill to play center-back but I wonder how he will perform as Borchers gets a year older and Jorge gets replaced. If there is an Achilles heal with the Timbers defense I think it’s in the left center-back position; I’m sure there are many who will disagree.
  • Taylor Peay – The youngster has done well this year in spot starts and if it wasn’t for Jorge Villafana leaving so quickly I’d almost offer Taylor might be a likely candidate to begin learning a bit about playing center-back. That may be a stretch for some but he’s pretty good moving laterally and his awareness continues to improve. For me that’s two critical assets a center-back needs to go along with good passing skills and a bit of pace.
  • Norberto Paparatto – While I’m not surprised Norberto had his contract declined there may be movement afoot to resign him. He did well this year in his own spot starts and as many have pointed out I don’t think the Timbers lost a game when he started. Perhaps more to follow with Norberto?

Defensive Gaps:

Even if Norberto Paparatto is resigned I would still offer the Timbers will have a gap at center-back. does Anthony Manning continue to develop? What about Taylor Peay, does he have the nous to begin learning the craft?

As previously noted there will be a HUGE gap at the fullback position; perhaps even more so with Jeanderson leaving as well? He didn’t show good grist when called upon to play against Philadelphia and since Taylor Peay showed well – with roughly the same amount of preparation/development time it is likely he doesn’t return. I wonder about Ben Zemanski prehaps filling this role; he has been tried here previously and his mentality, pace and passing skills are definitely up to scratch. Plus the CDM position already has Jack Jewsbury or George Fochive waiting in the wings too.

And while this article has been in draft awaiting final editing the Timbers have secured Chris Klute (pronounced Kloo tee) to try and close this gap…

Midfield – Transition from attacking to defending isn’t always about short passes. There’s as much for a midfielder to do when a team plays direct versus ground-based attacking. The tactics are slightly different but it all really comes down to first touch, turning, and passing. Whether that ball comes to you off a rebound, second chance deflection, or via a teammate passing you the ball doesn’t matter. You still need a great first touch, vision, stamina, turning, and passing skills.

  • Darlington Nagbe is maturing into a box-to-box midfielder who has superb skills where the sky is the limit – but so is playing time. Darlington will have to juggle three primary playing demands next year; playing the MLS Regular Season, the CCL, AND…….. (it’s about bloody time) the US Men’s National Team. How Darlington, and the Timbers organization balance those minutes will be huge; he’s in his prime and he’s a critical piece to this team as they look to defend the cup.
  • Diego Valeri continues to show his mettle on the pitch, like Villafana and Nagbe he has a boot full of skills and if/when the Timbers operate at their best he’s probably more of the dangerous counterfoil to Darlington as opposed to the leader of those two now. It’s hard to imagine saying that at this time but in my view the move of Darlington, to the middle of the pitch, has been exactly what the doctor ordered to give Diego some respite from being leveraged so much he might have been more ineffective than effective; others may disagree.
  • Rodney Wallace is not really touted as a midfielder but he is. He has just as much responsibility in attacking as he does defending. While Rodney doesn’t have the deft balls skills like Darlington and Diego he makes up for that in miles traveled. And with the Timbers making him a bona-fide contract offer for next year it’s likely the Timbers are very much committed to having him stay with the team. If he were to turn down that offer it’s likely the Timbers would shop just a feverishly for a player to replace his skills as a player to replace those of Jorge Villafana.
  • Dairon Asprilla is beginning to show to others. While it may have taken some time for him to settle into a specific role on the right side of the pitch his participation in games is just as much about what he personally brings to the team as what his presence allows others to bring to the game – namely Darlington Nagbe. I would argue that if Dairon Asprilla didn’t have the right mix of talent we may never have seen Nagbe move to the center of the pitch! That said his ability to show mettle on both sides of the pitch is just as valuable to Alvas Powell as Wallace’s ability to run the left side.

Midfield Gaps:

An attacking central midfielder to take on the role of Darlington Nagbe or Diego Valeri; preferably someone who’s a bit more box-to-box than Diego Valeri.

An midfield winger – preferably someone who’s a bit more savvy with their foot skills than Rodney Wallace; as noted Rodney has done well this year – but he struggles in making space for himself – Dairon does not.

Forward – A position where a player usually has the least amount of touches but perhaps the greatest amount of influence in the result.

  • Fenando Adi has made great strides this year and I personally know that the Timbers have made considerable effort in helping Fenando expand his skill set. He’s truly a bruising #9 who’s just as powerful on the turn as he is with the lateral run when looking for crosses or through-balls. Like everyone else in the attacking side of the pitch he’s gained considerable value with the presence of Darlington Nagbe in the middle. You always want your #9 to have space in front of them when their back is to the goal – the options made available become nearly 360 degrees as opposed to roughly 90 degrees… the greater Fenando’s field of vision the more dangerous he becomes.
  • Lucas Melano is, in my view, still a raw talent. But he is a talent. How that translates next year remains unclear. In my view he’s not ready to crack the first five in attack. Yes, he started in the Championship, and yes he offered the game winning cross but the tenor of the game very much worked towards a low block and while Lucas did well he was eventually replaced by Dairon when the short hairs got itchy.

Forward Gaps:

Another traditional #9 – while Fenando Adi continues to develop he simply can’t play every game and the Timbers will need to rely on another forward, with a skill set somewhat similar to Adi, in order to succeed in both the CCL and MLS. Even more so with the expanded attacking flexibility in being able to run a single or double pivot midfield.
A poacher with speed, quick feet and a great first touch – do you call that player a #8 or #10? It doesn’t really matter. If Maxi Urruti is released and not resigned then a player who could kinda do what Maxi could do but maybe faster may be a worthy team addition??? Perhaps this positional gap is also somewhat of the same positional gap that an attacking midfielder might fill???

Goalkeeping – The position where, hopefully, they do have the fewest touches in a game but perhaps the most influence in the outcome. We only have to recall the Cup game to know that…

Adam Kwarasey and Jake Gleeson – Both these guys are quality keepers and the Timbers should be in good stead for goal keeping next year. I’d like to offer a bit more here but goalkeeping is such a unique soccer skill set that I’d probably do those two players a dis-service by offering more.

Goalkeeping Gaps:

None – Well they will need a third keeper but I wouldn’t expect a gap given these two guys.

Where do you think the Timbers will have gaps they’ll need to fill working from assumptions/expectations that:

  1. The Timbers will look to defend their Cup with as much grist as possible.
  2. The Timbers will look to advance, with no holds barred, as far as possible in the CCL.
  3. The Timbers will look to advance, with no holds barred, as far as possible in the US Open Cup.
  4. Darlington Nagbe, Rodney Wallace, and Alvas Powell will all miss time with the team due to national call ups.
Best, Chris
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