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Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Portland Timbers

Jan 25, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

Caleb Porter

(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

Portland failed in 2012, and they know it. From the moment owner Merritt Paulson fired coach John Spencer, he set about making it clear to fans: Last season – a year in which he’d asked for a playoff appearance – was not acceptable. While Portland was only four points out of a playoff spot at the time of Spencer’s departure, the Timbers spent the rest of the season near the bottom of the west preparing for the arrival of Caleb Porter.

Change is already evident in Portland. There’s no air of disappointment lingering from last season. Instead, a new coach and an entirely different approach has restored the optimism. They may not be saying it out loud, but for the second year in a row, the Timbers plan to compete for the postseason.

Here are three (of many) questions they’ll need to answer this winter if they’re going to make waves:

  • Can Porter adapt?

On Tuesday, former Zip Darlington Nagbe was asked if he was having flashbacks to college training. Surprisingly, he said no. All of the drills Portland’s done this week are brand new to the somebody who played under Porter at Akron.

So Porter’s already adjusting. Whether that translates to wins is all that matters, something we won’t know until (at least) March, even if early returns are encouraging. The Timbers are training like a team ready to play to the strengths of Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, and Diego Chara. That fit may ultimately be the magic that justifies Porter’s hype.

  • Is Diego Valeri worth the label?

We’ve seen a lot of Designated Players come and go, most of which haven’t met the expectations that come with the label. We should adjust our views on the high-priced talents, but still, when you hear a team is bringing in a new designated player, you rightfully assume they think very highly of him.

And so we have Portland’s Argentinine import Diego Valeri, a loanee from Lanus brought in to orchestrate the attack. Even on the nights he can’t generate goals, he’s doing to be tasked with managing a possession-based passing game that should take pressure off the defense.

As with Porter, early returns are encouraging, but on an expensive loan deal (and with little pedigree outside of Argentina to recommend him one way or another), fans would be right to reserve judgment. In case you missed it, the last DP didn’t work out so well.

  • Can Darlington Nagbe reach his potential?

We don’t even know where he’ll play, so it’s hard to predict what he’ll do in 2013, but with the acquisition of Valeri, Nagbe looks set to assume a more goal-scoring role. He started in one last season when John Spencer paired him with Kris Boyd up top in a 4-4-2, but when Gavin Wilkinson took over and switched to a 4-3-3, Nagbe had to orchestrate the transition.

While he’s capable of doing that, Nagbe is the Timbers’ best goal scorer. His skill and instincts in the penalty area (along with the acquisition of Valeri) suggest he should be moved back forward. Given the paucity of scoring threats on Portland’s rost, the move’s almost necessary if the Timbers are going to score enough goals.

If the chance produces a much-needed double-digit goal scorer, Portland will have solved their biggest problem.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: Real Salt Lake

  1. docstraw - Jan 25, 2013 at 9:28 AM

    Any chance Porter would have any interest in Freddy Adu? Just curious since he’s worked with him in the past with the U-23s … Also, with Adu obviously on his way out of Philly, I can’t imagine he ends up anywhere else in MLS unless it is with a coach who knows him (and actually thinks he has something positive to offer). I suppose that means Adu will end up somewhere in Russia or something.

    • danielofthedale - Jan 25, 2013 at 12:38 PM

      I think Adu playing with Porter in his system would be intriguing to watch. However, I don’t think it will happen for two reason. One is playing time. I think Freddy still looks at himself as a must start, first XI guy on any team he goes to. In Portland I think he would have to be bench/role player, at least to start the season. That leads to the second reason why I don’t think he would end up in Portland, his salary. I don’t think Freddy is ready to take a pay cut that his lack of production seems to indicate he would have to go to Portland or probably anywhere else in MLS. I just can’t see the Timbers paying six figures for a guy that will be a bench player.

      But I like your thinking of having play with a coach that he has had some success with. I think he played pretty well in the U-23 tournament with Porter at the helm and Porter plays a style that fits his strengths. I just don’t think Freddy is self-aware enough to realize that taking a pay cut and reduced playing time to go to a good fit and playing his way back into a starter is a better move than bouncing around to the highest bidder and never thinking of how he fits into that team.

  2. docstraw - Jan 25, 2013 at 4:30 PM

    In other words, in theory it’s perhaps a good fit but based on the facts at hand, not so much. Can’t say I disagree.

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