One day I will get to catch up on much needed sleep during the weekends. One day, the New England Revolution and USMNT won’t keep me awake up to and past midnight with these damn Worst Coast kickoff times. That day is not today.
TBM: Okay, in 2015 the Timbers won the Cup and in 2016 you missed the playoffs. What went wrong last year and how has Portland gotten off to a strong start this year?
WC: Last year was a perfect storm of regressing performances, mental mistakes, and a handful of ill-timed injuries that laid the Timbers low.
After winning the MLS Cup in 2015, the Timbers returned most of the pieces from their Championship winning team save Jorge Villafana and Rodney Wallace. Replacing those players, however, as the Timbers dealt with a series of busts at left back before finally bringing in Vytas Andriuškevičius halfway through the season, and never quite settled on a left-side winger with an out of position Darren Mattocks mostly beating out designated player Lucas Melano, and youngsters Dairon Asprilla and Jack Bamrby for the spot. This lack of a strong left flank made the Timbers lopsided going forward and brittle in the back, opening up easy and obvious avenues of attack for opposing teams to exploit.
Melano and Asprilla were particularly disappointing in 2016 after putting in some key performances in 2015. With expectations high for the pair, both fell out of favor, ultimately resulting in Asprilla's loan to Colombian side Millonarios for half of last season, and Melano's return to Argentina this year.
Along the back line, the Timbers struggled with fitness early in the season with Liam Ridgewell missing time early in the year. Then, midway through the season, Nat Borchers suffered a career-ending achilles tendon rupture that left the Timbers scrambling to stabilize yet another position in turmoil. The Timbers would eventually find two center backs to help with their late-season playoff push in Gbenga Arokoyo and Steven Taylor, but both would have issues of their own; Arokoyo suffered a groin injury in his first minutes playing with the Timbers' USL side, T2, while Taylor just was not good -- although perhaps an upgrade over the Timbers other depth piece at center back, current Minnesota United defender Jermaine Taylor.
All of this lead to a season and a team that never settled in, never figured things out, and never quite got their heads right. This was made all the more apparent by the team's home and away records: the Timbers were among the league's best at Providence Park, but were the only side to go winless on the road in 2016.
TBM: Who are the new faces on the team? Was there a lot of roster turnover for Caleb Porter or is the bulk of the MLS Cup squad still intact?
WC: There are plenty of new faces with the Timbers for the 2017 season.
Beyond the Timbers' patchwork back line -- currently featuring newcomers Lawrence Olum and Roy Miller at center back, and most likely late 2016 homegrown signing Marco Farfan at left back -- the Timbers brought in two starters in the midfield to replace the outgoing Lucas Melano and retiree/legend Jack Jewsbury.
David Guzman, 26, is an out and out defensive midfielder, giving the Timbers an international caliber starter at the position for the first time in the MLS era. While Jewsbury left an indelible mark on the club before retiring at the end of last season, and Diego Chara has been striking fear into the hearts of opposing players since joining the Timbers in their inaugural season in MLS, neither played the sort of hard tackling, back line shielding, possession maintaining, long-ball playing No. 6 style that Guzman brings to the pitch.
What's more, having a player like Guzman in the lineup lets the Timbers drastically alter their approach to the match as he drops deep to play next to the center backs, pushing them out wide and letting the side's wing backs push forward into the attack.
Also entering into the Timbers' midfield is new designated player Sebastian Blanco. Blanco, 29, is the latest Argentine player to join the Timbers, replacing Melano as the side's third DP. A smart, versatile, and tenacious attacking midfielder, Blanco has primarily lined up on the right flank so far, combining with Diego Valeri in his central attacking midfield role and allowing Darlington Nagbe to shift into his best spot out on the left flank.
Through four games with the Timbers, Blanco has already notched a pair of assists and looks primed to continue putting up significant numbers throughout the season. Equally important, however, is the defensive effort that Blanco has brought to the Timbers' right wing. Blanco's ability to mix it up and put pressure on the ball high up the pitch will undoubtedly pay dividends over the course of the season, and his willingness to track back and put in the hard work when the Timbers are on the back foot will be vital as the Timbers try to avoid having the worst defense in the Western Conference for the second year running.
TBM: Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri are good at soccer. What's the most effective way you've seen other teams defend them in MLS?
WC: Both players are very different propositions when it comes to defensive best practices, so let's address them separately.
First, Fanendo Adi; while there are bigger players than Adi in the league, there are few that are stronger than the powerful striker. This, combined with his surprisingly good technique on the ball, makes Adi a nightmare match-up for any defender in MLS.
To overcome Adi's many gifts, teams generally resort to fouling the big man and hoping that the ref gives the call against him, rather than them. This might not seem like an actual strategy, but many MLS refs tend to have a bad case of, "well, he's just so big", and Adi is not always perfectly sanguine when he feels that a call -- or series of calls -- have not gone his way.
Of course, there is some evidence that Adi may have found it in himself to overcome this particular type of gamesmanship. Just look at the big man's four goals in 2017: three of his four goals so far have come after the 80th minute and the fourth came in first half stoppage time. Is that just Adi outlasting his defenders? Or has he reached some sort of inner peace about the sometimes baffling calls that he faces that has allowed him to overcome the turmoil that might previously have poisoned his game?
Diego Valeri, meanwhile, presents a different sort of challenge to defenders. If Adi is a boulder, rolling over defenders and grinding them down, then Valeri is a lightening bolt, striking suddenly and powerfully, and sometimes catching you completely off guard.
To stop the Maestro and his influence in the attack, there are several important factors that defenders will need to attend to: Valeri and everybody else. After four years and one month of regular season play with the Timbers, Valeri is rapidly approaching the top of the side's all-time scoring and assist tables, closing in on club legend John Bain's records for both.
Keeping Valeri form linking up with his fellow Timbers is a somewhat nebulous concept, but perhaps the most common first step that many teams have had success with is in forcing the Timbers to cross the ball into the box, rather than allowing the Timbers to pass the ball along the ground either from the flanks or through the middle. While the Timbers have some aerial threats, they pale in comparison to their ground game.
Next comes stopping Valeri himself. Doubling up on the Maestro to keep him from taking players on the dribble is prudent, but like with Adi the best option for teams is usually the most cynical one: just foul him. Not too close to the box as the Timbers have several players capable of scoring the occasional free kick goal, but deeper in the midfield where the Timbers will be tempted to lump a usually fruitless ball into the opposition box.
Lineup: Gleeson; Farfan, Miller, Olum, Powell; Guzman, Chara; Nagbe, Valeri, Blanco; Adi
Injuries: Liam Ridgewell doubtful (foot sprain), Vytas Andriuškevičius questionable (calf soreness), Gbenga Arokoyo out (ruptured achilles tendon)
Prediction: I hate predicting things, but have said that both of the Timbers' home matches so far will end 0-0, so I will stick with that.