The Portland Timbers are a team coming off a tough 2014 MLS campaign that saw them miss out on the playoffs by a single point.
After a season where they were in the Western Conference Finals against Real Salt Lake, it was a disappointment. To make matters worse, they lost their star playmaker “The Maestro” Diego Valeri and the relentless workhorse Will Johnson.
Valeri has been their top goal scorer, as well as assist leader, after making a huge impression in his 2013 debut season with 10 goals and 13 assists. In 2014 he made the MLS All-Star team in which he delivered the game-winning assist to LA Galaxy and United States Men’s National team legend Landon Donovan. In 2013 and 2014 the Argentinian playmaker was named to the MLS Best XI, as voted by the players, club leadership and members of the media.
Will Johnson, on the other hand, came in with Valeri to Portland in 2013 via a trade from Real Salt Lake for allocation money. The former captain and leader of Real Salt Lake had a great first year with the Timbers, with nine goals and five assists as well as a spot in the MLS Best XI. In 2014 he had six goals and two assists before coming down with the season-ending injury. Johnson was also named to the MLS All-Star team in both years with the Timbers. Head coach Caleb Porter has said he hopes to get both of these players back in May.
In the meantime, 2015 is going to be a year where the Timbers will be without two of their best players. They will have to adapt and change their style of play.
In order to get a sense of this change to the season, managing editor of the Portland Timbers SB Nation Blog, Stumptown Footy, William Conwell provided me with the insight. I asked questions about the excitement of opening day at Providence Park, the play of the Timbers adapting without their two All-Stars, and his take on the early part of the season.
VG: What makes opening day at Providence Park so special with the Timbers Army behind this team?
WC: Opening day is certainly wonderful and there is a buzz about the stadium that nobody can deny. What makes the Timbers and the Timbers Army so special is that the buzz never goes away.
The excitement and the love of watching the Timbers play never goes away and that is reflected in the creativity and passion that the Timbers Army show both in and out of the stadium.
Of course, once the game gets underway, that buzz turns into something altogether more visceral as the Timbers Army drums beat like the heart of the stadium and the chanting and shouting and oohing and ahhing gets underway. Then what makes opening day so special is the vice-like grip that grabs a hold of you and does not let go until the full 90 minutes have been played, compelling you to wave flags, stand up for the Rose City, Tetris back and forth, jump to show that you are Timbers, and to fall in love all over again in the 85th minute.
VG: Valeri is a perennial MVP candidate, and Will Johnson is the captain and a tireless worker for this team. How has the team adapted their play without two of their leaders?
WC: Caleb Porter has adjusted his side’s style of play to fit the loss of two of the team’s most influential players, going with a more direct style that has so far prized defensive solidity over the fluid attacking movements that we have seen from the Timbers at their best in the previous two seasons. The results have been a mixed bag for the Timbers; allowing only two goals over the course of their first three games, but also only scoring two goals, the Timbers are still looking for the best possible approach to the game in their current situation.
Looking beyond Porter, the Timbers players have had to make adjustments of their own. Most impacted by this has been Darlington Nagbe, who has been asked to step up in a big way for the Timbers and drive the team’s attack forward. So far the Timbers’ original draft pick has done well, creating both of the Timbers goals so far and masterminding plenty of other chances as well.
Despite all that, the Timbers are still a team that are characterized by the lack of Will Johnson and Diego Valeri. If the Timbers tie, the refrain is, “But Valeri and Johnson might have turned that into a win.” If the Timbers lose, the refrain will be, “If the Timbers had had Valeri and Johnson, they could have turned that into a draw.” Even if the Timbers win, the refrain will be, “But imagine how good they will be with Valeri and Johnson back.” Of course, all of those refrains are correct. Johnson and Valeri are two of the most influential players on this Timbers’ side and until they return the Timbers seem to be just treading water.
VG: In three games there have been three draws. What is your take on the Timbers start to the season? What are some improvements you’d like to see? What are some concerns you still have? What are some positives?
WC: The Timbers’ direct style of play early in the season has been an interesting departure from the Timbers of the last two years, although it is perhaps not as radical a change as it seems at first glance. The Timbers have always had the “direct football” card in their pocket and have played it several times over the last two years. This time, however, the Timbers have had no choice but to play that card, limited by personnel and opponent.
For his part, Porter seems to think that the Timbers have over-corrected and gone too direct, an assessment that I agree with. The team began to work their way back toward the pretty passing possession setup that we all know and love in their last game against Sporting Kansas City, pushing Diego Chara further up the field in a bid to win and hold possession further down the pitch, rather than simply accumulating the occasional strings of passes across the back line before lumping the ball forward.
While direct soccer can be beautiful, as were both of the Timbers’ goals against the LA Galaxy in week two, relying solely on it to generate your chances gives the opponent too easy of a time adapting to and stifling your attack. No matter how talented the Timbers may be in the attack, if their opponents can identify and shut down their avenues of attack, they will rarely score the goals they need to win games.
For the Timbers, an immediate return to the dominating, possession focused matches of 2013 may not be realistic, but steps that way need to be taken. Unleashing Chara has been a good start, and next should be encouraging the fullbacks to get forward and get involved in the attack rather than sitting back and maintaining defensive shape at the expense of providing an extra man in the attack.
The best thing the Timbers could do, though, is get Valeri and Johnson healthy as the pair bring an instant dynamism to the Timbers’ attack and a will to win that is unmatched in the side.
The Portland Timbers currently sit in a tie for sixth place in the Western Conference. Their next match-up is against the expansion side Orlando City SC who are led by Brazilian star Kaka. The game is April 12 at 2 p.m. PT on ESPN2.
Check out more Portland Timbers and William Conwell content on Stumptownfooty.com or follow him on Twitter @williamconwell.