By Ridge Mahoney
In their second MLS season the Portland Timbers vaporized the expectations created by an unforgettable 2011 campaign of frenzied sellout crowds and spirited performances.
A stumbling start prompted the firing of head coach John Spencer. After an eighth-place finish (8-16-10, 34 points) guided by interim coach Gavin Wilkinson, owner Merritt Paulson dipped into the college ranks to hire Caleb Porter away from Akron.
Porter – with Wilkinson back in his previous role as general manager -- embarked on a makeover that dismissed more than a dozen players, including ballyhooed DP striker Kris Boyd, whose struggles epitomized how sourly ran Spencer’s fortunes after that magical first season. As ex-Timber Kenny Cooper rang up the goals for New York, Boyd led the team with seven but squandered enough opportunities to bear much of the blame for a lousy season. Yet aside from perhaps a few blown assignments on set plays he’s hardly culpable for the 56 goals allowed, third-worst in MLS, by the Timbers last year.
The boisterous Timbers Army is far from disgruntled, as evidenced by the 14,299 supporters who flocked to JELD-WEN Field last Sunday to see one of the newcomers, Ryan Johnson, nail a hat trick in a 3-3 tie with defending conference champion San Jose. The Timbers have also beaten Colorado and bitter rival Seattle in the preseason while looking quite potent utilizing the precepts of skillful, combination play featured by Porter’s teams at Akron.
A discovery claim filed by Portland on U.S. international Mixx Diskerud triggered a flurry of speculation in December that he was bound for MLS; that rumor quickly cooled and he’s re-signed with Rosenborg. Still, there’s no doubt the coaching change has met with approval.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. Former Zips Ben Zemanski and Michael Nanchoff were acquired in trades with Chivas USA and Vancouver, respectively. They are reunited with Darlington Nagbe, who rather than being the attack’s focal point is running the wing to feed on the supply of playmaker Diego Valeri -- acquired on loan from Argentine club Lanus -- while backed by former RSL midfielder Will Johnson.
The other Johnson, a journeyman the past few years, has carved out a reputation for hard-nosed, punishing effort. Both Johnsons, as well as former SKC defender Michael Harrington, add many years of experience that will be valuable, especially on the road, where Portland won just once in 2012.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? Porter turned to coaching at age 25 when his playing career was cut short by recurring knee injuries. More than a dozen of his Akron players are in MLS, so his eye for finding talent and expertise at honing it has already been proven. The artificial turf and rabid environment at JELD-WEN Field are severe tests in themselves, and a band of eager Timbers zipping the ball around can ratchet up pressure to the extreme. A mere seven wins in 17 home games is all they mustered last year and that just isn’t acceptable.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? The defending and goalkeeping issues were addressed somewhat with the acquisitions of keeper Milos Kocic (Toronto FC) and Ryan Miller (Swedish club Halmstads), which can create more competition for spots. Donovan Ricketts has yet to look like the same keeper who anchored a stingy Galaxy defense from 2009 to 2011. How much the quality has improved can’t yet be assessed, and on paper, Portland still looks dubious as a playoff participant unless it can significantly shore up its resistance and resilience.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? The college game can be stodgy and predictable, but the Zips under Porter were different. Whether he deploys three forwards or uses some other alignments, caution isn’t likely except when necessary. He left a great situation at Akron and so will have the necessary time to tinker and adapt as he gets up to speed in the professional ranks. The players have already bought in and the fans seem to be ponying up as well.
Previous SA Confidential MLS Team Previews:
Revs revamp after rough first season for Heaps
Maligned Chivas USA sets new direction