by Joe Arancio
The 2015 season was the culmination of a three-year crusade by the Portland Timbers and head coach Caleb Porter as the club claimed its first MLS Cup in its fifth year as part of the league. The Timbers finished third in the Western Conference with a 15-11-8 record and earned wins over Sporting KC, Vancouver and FC Dallas in the Western Conference playoffs. Portland then finished its playoff run with a 2-1 win over Columbus Crew SC in the MLS Cup Final. Portland now goes from the hunter to the hunted heading into 2016 and will have to continue its strong form from the end of last season to remain atop MLS.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Prior to the 2015 season, Portland made two significant additions at the back that turned the Timbers from a notoriously leaky defensive team to one of the best in the league. The first move was signing Ghanaian goalkeeper Adam Kwarsey from Strømsgodset in Norway to replace Donovan Ricketts who would be selected in the Expansion Draft by Orlando City. Kwarsey turned in one of the better seasons of any keeper in MLS in his first season in the league. The Ghanaian started 33 games and posted a 1.09 goals-against average, fourth in MLS. He also tied for the league lead with 13 shutouts. The second move that the Timbers made was to trade allocation money to Real Salt Lake for experienced MLS center back Nat Borchers. He proved to be the final piece to Portland’s revamped defense. Borchers combined with center back Liam Ridgewell and fullbacks Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana to allow just 39 goals, tied for third-fewest in MLS and 13 fewer than the club had allowed in 2014.
As great as Portland’s postseason run was, it most likely wouldn’t have happened without a late season change in tactics by Porter. After a loss to Sporting KC dropped the Timbers below the red line with just three games to play, the Timbers’ head man reevaluated his approach and returned to the more aggressive strategy he entered the league with in 2012. Porter switched to an offensive 4-3-3 formation with Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe playing in front of defensive midfielder Diego Chara. The formation change ignited the Timbers, who did not lose a game the rest of the season or in the postseason. The team picked up three straight wins to end the regular season, outscoring its opponents by a 10-3 margin and moved all the way up to the No. 3 seed in West.
Portland continued to ride its hot streak from the end of the season into the MLS Cup Playoffs starting with a Knockout Round game against Sporting KC. The Timbers led 1-0 late in the regulation when SKC’s Kevin Ellis scored in the 87th minute to force extra time. Both clubs scored in extra time leading to penalties, which Portland won in dramatic fashion when Kwarsey converted from the spot then saved a penalty kick by Sporting goalkeeper Jon Kempin in the 10th round. The Timbers then outplayed both of the West’s top two seeds, Vancouver and FC Dallas, on their way to the MLS Cup Championship. In the championship game, Portland jumped on the Crew with two goals in the first seven minutes, effectively ending the game before it really even begun, ultimately picking up a 2-1 win to raise its first MLS Cup trophy.
WHAT WENT WRONG
It is hard to find too many things wrong in a season that ends in a championship, but one issue that hounded Portland for much of the season was an inconsistent offense. The Timbers’ struggles in the attacking third led to a slow start for the club as Portland sat at just 3-4-4 through the first 12 games of the season. PTFC played without Valeri for eight of those 12 games and averaged less than a goal a game, scoring just 11 times. Designated Player Fanendo Adi was very hot and cold for most of the season, scoring eight of his 16 goals in four games and notching only four goals during Portland’s early-season doldrums.
OFFSEASON TO-DO LIST
1) Add Depth On The Wings
Portland is very thin at the wide forward positions thanks to the departure of Rodney Wallace and the move of Darlington Nagbe to a more central location. The Timbers currently have just Dairon Asprilla and midseason addition Lucas Melano as wide players on the roster. Midfielder Jack Jewsbury can play on the wings as can fullback Andy Thomas, but neither have the type of offensive ability that Portland needs from its wingers. First-round pick Ben Polk might be asked to play out wide to start his MLS career, but if the Timbers suffer an injury to either Asprilla or Melano they would be in a bad spot. The team should take advantage of the additional TAM that it received this offseason and find a player either in South America or Europe that can come in and battle for a starting spot.
2) Replace Villafana (DONE)
Even before the Timbers played in the MLS Cup Championship rumors were swirling that left back Jorge Villafana would leave the team after the season in a transfer move to Santo Laguna. The rumors were proven true early in the offseason when Portland announced that it had completed a transfer move with the Mexican club for an undisclosed fee. The transfer left PTFC in need of a new left back so the club made a trade with its MLS Cup opponent, Columbus, for left back Chris Klute. The full back had played as a backup in his one year with the Crew, appearing in just 14 games with eight starts, but in his two previous seasons with Colorado Klute had started 54 games and was considered one of the better left backs in MLS. He even earned a call up to the US National Team January Camp in 2014. If Klute can rediscover the form from his time in Colorado he should slot into that starting left back spot without the Timbers missing a beat.
3) Find A Backup For Adi (DONE)
Portland declined the option on backup striker Maximiliano Urruti after the 2015 season which deprived the team of a clear backup for Adi. Even though Urruti managed just four goals for the Timbers in 2015 he was still the only experienced backup at the position and his departure left Portland with only 19-year old Michael Seaton behind Adi. The Timbers moved quickly to fill the void, addressing the issue with a second trade with Columbus. PTFC sent both TAM and allocation money to the Crew for the rights of talented forward Jack McInerney who the club quickly signed to a new contract. The 23-year old has 38 goals in 143 MLS appearances and will give Portland a great piece off the bench in 2016.