The Timbers Are Taking 2016 Very SeriouslyThe MLS Cup champions have been busy ahead of big 2016 season
by Ray Marcham | Thursday, January 14, 2016
Often, there are two ways that a team can enter a season following a title-winning run. They can either stand pat with what got them a championship, or they can retool and try to improve on what they already have.
In the case of the Portland Timbers, it is definitely the latter.
The defending MLS Cup winners have not stood still since that day in Columbus. Between the departures of players, some quite popular with the Timbers Army, and the acquisition of players with MLS experience, Gavin Wilkinson and Caleb Porter have not shy of changing to try and make Portland a better team while defending their title.
Of course, 2016 will add an extra wrinkle to how Portland builds its squad. The return to the CONCACAF Champions League, and the lessons of the failed CCL run two seasons ago, means added depth has become more important. That has been seen in some of their moves.
That has already been shown in their signings, or who they are looking to sign, on defense. Chris Klute was a rising star in Colorado a few years ago, and even got an invite to the US national team camp in 2014. Zarek Valentin was a starter for Chivas USA in 2011 as a 19-year-old, has spent the last three seasons in Norway with FK Bodø/Glimt. Jermaine Taylor has made over 80 appearances for the Jamaican national team and was a big part of Houston’s defense for four seasons.
But all three are also big chances the Timbers are taking. Klute has struggled the past two seasons in Colorado and Columbus, but he’s only 25. Valentin tore his Achilles tendon in 2014, but played almost a full schedule in 2015 and is just 24. Taylor, assuming the Timbers can sign him after taking him in second round of the MLS Re-Entry Draft, missed the latter half of Houston’s 2015 season with a quad tear. But all three add depth to the back line, and one wouldn’t be surprised to see Klute as a starter in 2016, likely replacing Jorge Villafaña in the lineup.
Ah, yes, back line departures. Villafaña’s was fairly quick after the Cup Final, as Santos Laguna of Liga MX swooped in with a decent amount of cash to get him from Portland. Norberto Papparato, who arrived in Portland with much fanfare before the 2014 season, didn’t have his contract renewed despite having become the preferred backup center back for both Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers, and is returning to Argentina after declining a new contract from the Timbers. Neither did young Brazilian defender Jeanderson, who was a project from the moment he arrived in the Rose City and never really got into the rotation. Goalkeeper Andrew Weber was also let go, solidifying Jake Gleeson as the backup for Adam Kwarasey.
There were also big losses in the front 6 for Portland, as well, but may have been needed. Will Johnson was traded to Toronto, giving him a chance to revive his career in his hometown. Maximiliano Urruti had his option declined, and was quickly taken in the first round of the MLS Re-Entry Draft by FC Dallas. Rodney Wallace was offered a new deal, but declined and is reportedly moving out of MLS. Those three have played big roles with the Timbers over the past three seasons, and all were popular with supporters, especially Johnson, the former captain.
But replacements are coming. Ned Grabavoy comes to Portland from NYCFC, where he was a steady starter in the midfield and may be seen as a backup for Darlington Nagbe in the central midfield (and likely start when Nagbe is with the US men’s national team). He’s also a 12-year MLS veteran who has won MLS Cups with Los Angeles (2005) and Real Salt Lake (2009).
One-time phenom Jack McInerney arrives after a trade with Columbus, and is expected to provide a goal-scoring punch that would complement Fanendo Adi, Diego Valeri and Nagbe. McInerney rocketed to prominence with Philadelphia, making the club’s first team as a 17-year old in 2010 and scoring 25 times for the Union. He also added 11 goals in 43 matches with Montréal, including key goals in the 2014 Canadian Championship and the 2014-15 CCL semifinal and final. While he’s already a 6-year MLS veteran, McInerney is only 23 and still has many years ahead of him. However, McInerney will be with his third club in a year, so stability will be as important as playing time for him.
Many of the players coming in already have connections with the Timbers, especially Porter. Valentin was a part of Porter’s national championship team at the University of Akron in 2010 with Nagbe, and was part of the US men’s U-23 team that Porter coached in 2012. Grabavoy was at Indiana University when Porter was an assistant coach there and was a teammate with Borchers and Johnson on RSL’s 2009 Cup-winning team. McInerney also played for Porter in friendlies as part of the same US U-23 team that Valentin was on, but didn’t make the final roster for the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament.
There may be a few added on between now and the season opener against Columbus at Providence Park on March 6, but the bulk of the moves have been done. While the core of the Timbers 2015 title run remain (Valeri, Chara, Nagbe, Ridgewell, Adi, Borchers, Kwarasey), the new additions will be key in Portland making a successful defense of their MLS Cup, and to go deep in both the US Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League.
These champions are not sitting still.