by Nicholas Garner
Caleb Porter must have surprised nearly everyone but himself and his staff with his picks in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. Of the six players chosen, only defender Taylor Peay seems to have been on anyone’s radar as a likely prospect by the time the 17th pick came around, as none of Portland’s other selections were on any of the mock draft lists.
The conventional wisdom was that Porter would acquire former Akron Zips and Timbers U-23 players like Reinaldo Brenes, Mark Sherrod, and Aodhan Quinn. Refrains of “All the Zips Belong to Us” and exhortations for Porter to “get the band back together” notwithstanding, Porter chose to be his own guide.
It isn’t surprising that armchair analysts among the Timbers Army might not have the insight into the MLS Combine and college soccer luminaries to suss out the potential candidates, but it is kind of shocking to come away from the process with the feeling that none of the experts had much clue either except, ahem, Alexi Lalas (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Maybe Timbers fans can take heart that Porter hasn’t necessarily been figured out yet.
To make more sense of Portland’s acquisitions, it is useful to consider what Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson said about the Timbers’ needs heading into this coming season and beyond, and how those needs relate to the past season’s results. Even then, I suspect we’ll find that Porter has still defied some expectations. To vastly oversimplify, as outstanding as Portland’s 2013 campaign was, I think many will agree that they fell short in the following ways.
1) No depth at left back. Michael Harrington was an injury away from causing a massive headache for the Timbers. Ryan Miller was inadequate at right back before he was injured. Jack Jewsbury was serviceable on either flank but not sufficient. Alvas Powell was promising but a red card waiting to happen. Ben Zemanski and Sal Zizzo were less right backs than Jack. Brent Richards got a glance in the position, but was injured so soon into the season that he never earned a second.
2) Not good enough at right back. At the beginning of the season, Porter brought in Ryan Miller as the presumed solution to the revolving door at the position that had seen the entrance and subsequently inglorious exit of such luminaries as Kosuke Kimura and Lovell Palmer. After Ryan Miller was injured, Brad Ring was acquired from the San Jose Earthquakes, but played all of one minute for the Timbers before announcing his departure for NASL newcomer Indy Eleven. Aside from the aforementioned with relation to the left back position, the Timbers just weren’t able to get forward and back quickly enough on the right to be threatening. Jewsbury has a cannon of a leg sometimes, is accurate in his passing, and has smart positioning, but he couldn’t get forward as often as Porter might have liked because he didn’t have the speed to balance his defensive responsibilities against the faster wingers in the league. Porter compensated for this by utilizing the vacant space in the right wing made by Darlington Nagbe or Kalif Alhassan’s tendencies to move inside, and Jack’s hanging back, but not every team could be exposed by a quick switching of the field by Will Johnson, for example.
3) Poor distribution from the back and lousy set piece defense. The season-ending injury to Mikael Silvestre put an end to early experiments with Timbers-taka. Mamadou “Futty” Danso and Pa Modou Kah, celebrated as “The Great Wall of Gambia,” were bipolar in their contributions to the team. Kah overcame some initial recklessness to solidify his presence in the back line, and Futty came from the bottom of the roster depth barrel to exert a relatively calming influence. But, their relatively poor foot skills, hoof and pray clearances, and Futty’s late-season gaffes confirmed that they have tenuous futures with the side. Porter clearly wants center backs that can distribute on the ground, calmly face down attackers, defend set pieces, and help control possession and the pace of the game. When Silvestre went down, Portland didn’t have the tools for the job.
4) Insufficient depth behind Will Johnson and Diego Chara. When Will Johnson was injured, Portland had nobody to fill his shoes. Zemanski might not get enough credit for his determination and versatility, being saddled with a “bunkering” label that arguably fit the circumstances of his substitutions more than his disposition and abilities. Nevertheless, for all his fire, Zemanski wasn’t up to the task of substituting for the team Captain. It is probably too much to ask for Portland to have someone on the bench that can approximate what Will Johnson brings to the pitch, but they need to be able to be more effective in his absence. Portland were fortunate that Chara didn’t miss much time with his toe injury, because he may be equally important to the team’s success, if not more so.
5) Insufficient depth at left and right wings. When the Ticos called up Rodney Wallace for Costa Rican national team duty, Portland didn’t have an adequate replacement. Michael Nanchoff was on loan in Norway for a significant chunk of the season and neither Nagbe nor Alhassan is a natural on the left. Wallace also seemed less effective after he returned. Whether that can be attributed
to his losing team chemistry while away, not being sufficiently motivated or challenged for his starting position, lack of cohesiveness due to the change in distribution tactics from the back, or some combination, is up for debate. The diminishment of his early season contributions in the latter part of the year needed to be addressed somehow though. On the right, Alhassan is behind Nagbe in the depth chart, and Sal Zizzo was behind him. Zizzo was on his honeymoon when he was traded to Sporting Kansas City, and Alhassan often subs for Valeri, leaving the right wing a bit shallow, especially without a fullback to overlap.
6) Ryan Johnson also arguably had a dip in form, which could also be attributed to his Jamaican National Team duties, attitude, or distribution. He is evidently eager to ply his trade across the pond and has not yet accepted Portland’s bona fide offer for his continued services. It is important for Portland to have strength and some redundancy in the position going forward (no pun intended) no matter what.
7) Diego Valeri got injured. This sort of thing can’t be predicted or helped. Valeri made outstanding contributions off the bench and even starting for several games when suffering from a hernia. Hopefully his offseason surgery and recovery brings him completely back to health. Alhassan and Nagbe both filled in as center attacking midfielders when Valeri wasn’t fit, and Nanchoff might be able to slot into the role as well. Valeri is probably more irreplaceable than Will Johnson or Chara, and there is little chance of Portland being able to have an adequate substitute riding the pine. However, some flexibility in their tactics and formation might be able to compensate a little bit, which means strengthening some other positions on the pitch.
8) Maybe Portland was outgunned? Poor finishing was often cited as a concern. Many expected a big DP signing at forward in the offseason, or for Maximiliano Urruti to impress more before pulling up short with a hamstring injury. Where is the true #9 nearly everyone has agreed Portland needs?
9) Donovan Ricketts. He looked poor at the end of the 2012 season but came up larger than life in 2013, winning about every possible plaudit. He made many Timbers fans nervous on a few occasions when he seemed reckless or to be playing injured or infirm. Backup keeper Milos Kocic looked relatively promising, but understandably does not want to wait for Ricketts to tap out to get a starting position, and is reportedly back on the East Coast with family trying to find a better paycheck to feed his unexpectedly large brood. Jake Gleeson seems to have fallen out of favor as the heir apparent after injuries erased much memory of his 2011 starts for an injured Troy Perkins. Portland drafted former Akron Zip David Meves last season and fielded him in the U-23 squad and as a guest player during practices, but he appears to be mysteriously out of contention for a roster spot. Portland brought in Sounder at Heart Andrew Weber, but the Timbers Army must be hoping that he’s just a warm body to bounce balls off of in the preseason, as he definitely doesn’t seem like a threat to Ricketts for starting minutes.
10) Real Salt Lake. One could take something different away from each encounter that Portland had with the MLS Cup runner up, and this is probably the summation of Portland’s problems last season rather than a separate point. Will Johnson was injured in at least one game, Futty almost single-footedly lost another, etc. There are ways to rationalize the repeated failure of the Timbers to match Jason Kreis’ side. To be fair, it was basically Year Zero for Portland and, despite what RSL fans might say about 2013 being a rebuilding year, Garth Lagerwey, Kreis, and the team they built had several years to set a standard for Porter to meet and exceed. That said, Portland beat Sporting Kansas City, and SKC defeated RSL on penalties in MLS Cup, so there must was at least one way to unlock the Utah side. Was Porter outsmarted, outmanned, or both?
These ten areas address many, if not most, of the Timbers’ deficiencies from last season, next we’ll examine how the offseason acquisitions might address them.