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PREVIEW: Timbers take aim at MLS Cup
by Paul Kennedy, March 4th, 2014 10:19PM

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TAGS:  mls, portland timbers

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[MLS 2014: Western Conference] In a year when so many young coaches enjoyed great seasons -- Mike Petke at New York, Jay Heaps at New England and Oscar Pareja at Colorado, not to mention Jason Kreis, still a young 40 last season, at Real Salt Lake -- Caleb Porter was the clear winner of the 2013 MLS Coach of the Year. And with a year of MLS under his belt, he is taking aim at leading the Portland Timbers to their first MLS Cup.

Porter guided the Timbers to a 15-game unbeaten streak in 2013 -- the longest by a first-year head coach in MLS -- and a 23-point turnaround from the 2012 season -- the most in MLS.

2013 Portland Timbers
Record: 14-5-15
Finish: 1st in Western Conference.
Playoffs: defeated in conference final.

Just as he moved quickly to have everything in place when he made the transition from college coach at Akron to Timbers head coach in January 2013, Porter addressed 2014 needs quickly with the acquisition of established Argentines, Norberto Paparatto and Gaston Fernandez, in January.

The Timbers may not have the deepest team in MLS, but it's hard to think of another team that has a stronger starting lineup.

Western Conference Preview:
Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | LA Galaxy

WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? The Timbers return three MLS Best XI picks in Goalkeeper of the Year Donovan Ricketts, Newcomer of the Year Diego Valeri and Canadian Will Johnson. On his day, Valeri is the best No. 10 in MLS.

Left back Michael Harrington earned a call-up to the U.S. national team's January camp and Liberian-born Darlington Nagbe should be a national team regular once he receives his U.S. citizenship.

Paparatto gives the Timbers the centerback they need to keep things tidy  in the back, while Fernandez, the other new signing, is one of the best Argentine forwards to ever come into the league.

Porter went with Frederic Piquionne,  born in New Caledonia but capped for France and Martinique, over Ryan Johnson, now in China, in the second leg of the 2013 conference final against Real Salt Lake and Piquionne should give the Timbers a strong presence as an extra attacker late in games.

WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Late-season injuries slowed Valeri down, making him ineffective against Real Salt Lake in the conference final. Portland will have a very hard time reaching MLS Cup with Valeri (bought along slowly in preseason) at less than 100 percent.

Since scoring 10 goals apiece in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, Fernandez went without a goal -- 24 league games -- for Estudiantes. The Timbers need consistent production from Fernandez or fellow Maximiliano Urruti up front.

Urged on by their sellout crowds -- 51 and counting at the renamed Providence Park -- the Timbers play a high-energy game that wears down opponents. The danger on turf, though, is that it will wear down the Timbers as well. The backline (average age of almost 31) needs watching.

PROJECTED FINISH: 1st-3rd place. The Timbers have an edge on their the Cascadia rivals Seattle and Vancouver and will be in a dogfight with the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake for first in Western Conference. Converting more close games into wins this year will do the trick.



PROJECTED LINEUP: 4-3-3
Goalkeeper:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
1-Donovan Ricketts (36)/Jamaica (3rd season)

Defenders:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
13-Jack Jewsbury (32)/USA (4th season)
23-Norberto Paparatto (30)/Argentina (Tigre)
44-Pa Modou Kah (33)/Norway (2nd season)
5-Michael Harrington (28)/USA (2nd season)

Midfielders:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
4-Will Johnson (27)/Canada (2nd season)
21-Diego Chara (27)/Colombia (4th season)
8-Diego Valeri (27)/Argentina (2nd season)

Forwards:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
6-Darlington Nagbe (23)/Liberia (4th season)
37-Maximiliano Urruti (23)/Argentina (2nd season)
10-Gaston Fernandez (30)/Argentina (Estudiantes)

First off the bench:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
11-Kalif Alhassan (23)/Ghana (4th season)
98-Futty Danso (30)/Gambia (4th season)
12-Schillo Tshuma (21)/Zimbabwe (Univ. of Maryland)
9-Frederic Piquionne (35)/Martinique (2nd season)
Portland Timbers: complete roster.

Note:
returning players in bold.

MARCH SCHEDULE:
March 8: Philadelphia, 10:30 pm ET
March 16: Chicago, 3 pm ET
March 22: at Colorado, 6 pm ET
March 29: at FC Dallas, 8:30 pm ET
Portland Timbers: complete schedule.


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