Portland Timbers face added pressure loaded on MLS top dogs

By Ridge Mahoney

When the Portland Timbers host the Simple Invitational that kicks off a week from Saturday, one of the simplest questions will nevertheless be one of the most pertinent:

Are the defending champions better, worse, or about the same two and a half months after winning their first league title?

As to last point first, they are certainly not the same. Every team changes every offseason and for Portland the departures of key starters Rodney Wallace and Jorge Villafana along with longtime linchpin Will Johnson and striker Max Urruti leave some significant holes. The Timbers, though, remain strong down the middle, beginning in goal with Adam Kwarasey. (Backup Jake Gleeson trained in Norway for two weeks last month to sharpen his game.)

The centerback pairing of Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers will re-form once the former’s loan spell is done, the midfield spine of Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri is one of the league’s best, and forward Fanendo Adi (16 goals) improved markedly last year in his second MLS season. The Timbers added some experienced MLS players in the offseason to address those departures -- Ned Grabavoy, Chris Klute, Jack McInerney, Jermaine Taylor -- but will need contributions from certain holdovers to maximize its chances to retain the crown.

Portland concluded its preseason stint in Arizona Thursday by beating Real Salt Lake, 1-0, on a goal by forward Lucas Melano in the first minute. It heads home with a 2-0-1 record that includes a 1-1 tie with Houston and a 2-1 defeat of Seattle at the Kino Sports Complex in Tuscon.

He scored just one goal in 13 regular-season games last year after arriving in July from Argentine club Lanus on a DP contract and in the playoffs scored a dazzling goal against FC Dallas to clinch that series.

The Timbers paid a lot of money – reportedly $5 million – to get Melano, and will be expecting significant production this year. He’s only 23, so the team is not counting on him as a finished product but rather as a player destined to improve, perhaps sharply, as he gains confidence and experience in a rough-and-tumble league.

Adi’s best work is inside the penalty area and thus head coach Caleb Porter needs consistently dangerous wide play, which Wallace supplied in abundance on the left side. The right wing was more hit and miss. Melano saw a lot of time on the right, and if he’s struggling and sputtering as the season gets underway opponents will know they can set out to smother Adi along with service from the left.

Which brings us to Asprilla, who started 10 of 26 games last season, his first in MLS, and also produced just one goal along with two assists. In the playoffs, he started three of six games and notched three assists, including on the crucial 118th minute volley by Urruti that knotted up Sporting Kansas City, 2-2, in the knockout round and set the stage for a dramatic penalty-kick showdown.

Asprilla started against RSL and came off at halftime. Replacement Neco Brett is a 23-year-old Jamaican taken in the second round (No. 40 overall) at the SuperDraft. They are not the only candidates -- Ben Polk was the last pick of the SuperDraft's first round -- to replace Wallace at left wing, and with Klute expected to take over at left back for Villafana, the re-shaping of that flank is an essential part of transforming the Timbers.

Many factors will play into whether the defending champion is better or worse in 2016. The Galaxy won consecutive MLS Cups in 2011 and 2012 (as well as 2014), but no other team has repeated as league champ since Houston, which had just moved from San Jose, went back-to-back in 2006 and 2007.

The added burden of Concacaf Champions League play doesn’t kick in until late summer, by which time Porter will know how much he can expect out of Grabavoy, who turns 33 in July, and whether or not McInerney has found a home after moving from the Union to the Impact to the Crew to the Timbers in less than two years.

Teams always vie to take their best shots against the defending champs, and how Porter and his players cope with amped-up teams is a function of depth, experience and ability. The Timbers relished their role as underdogs last year; can they handle the added pressure loaded on top dogs?

Many foreign players labor in their first MLS seasons, and as Adi showed, can use that inaugural campaign as a springboard to an excellent season. That is what will be expected of Melano and Asprilla, two players to watch as the Timbers finish up preseason and head into the long slog of the 2016.

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