IM2.jpg
Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

Though it started with two seismic departures, the Portland Timbers have had themselves what appears to be an awfully effective offseason.

A week into camp, with Giovanni Savarese at the controls, the club's roster is in good shape. Peruvian international Andy Polo has arrived to fill Darlington Nagbe's vacated spot on the left wing, while in Julio Cascante, the club finally has a starting-caliber center back on the right side of 30.

Cascante isn't an outlier. The average age of the club's six signings so far this winter is just over 23. As a result, this roster is is leaner, faster, and younger than it was last season. It includes three U.S. youth internationals, one of whom, Eyrk Williamson, drew interest from Schalke before the Timbers snapped him up from DC United.

Fanendo Adi is healthy. Diego Chara is about to be. If it looks like the Timbers are having fun in Tucson, there's plenty of reason why.

All that remains is for Savarese and company is to bring in two more TAM-level attackers and then to answer a question that has drawn surprisingly little attention in recent months: who will start in goal?

On that one front, there has been no clarity since the season ended nearly three months ago. The goalkeeping corps consists, just as it did at this time last year, of Jeff Attinella, Jake Gleeson, and Kendall McIntosh.

The Timbers' rationale for not signing a new starting goalkeeper, despite the churn at the position in 2017, is straightforward. Both Gleeson and Attinella have done the job effectively at different points in the last two years, and they've done it on the cheap. All told, Portland spent less on goalkeeping than all but three teams in 2017.

The club would like to see one of the two step up and spend its money elsewhere. The question is who it will be.

McIntosh, who played last season with T2, is likely the number three. That job could also fall to trialist Alex Mangels, who is with the team in Arizona. But between Gleeson and Attinella, it's more or less an open competition leading up to the season opener in Carson against the LA Galaxy on the first Sunday of March.

How did we get here? Gleeson went into 2017 as the clear number one, but was unconvincing in his first full season as a starter before injuring his hamstring in August in Toronto in mid-August.

It was at that point that Attinella stepped in and, much like Gleeson did the year before in Adam Kwarasey's stead, got hot: he won Save of the Week in his first start after Gleeson's injury for a jaw-dropping save to secure a win against the New York Red Bulls, played an excellent game in Seattle a week later, then nearly won Save of the Week again a week after that for a similarly important stop at Yankee Stadium.

Even if Gleeson had been in wonderful form, he was going to have a tough time getting back into the lineup. As it happened, he wouldn't see the field again in 2017.

Attinella continued to play well, but not at his late August peak. He let in a soft goal that decided a loss at Real Salt Lake in October, and let in another one in the season-ending playoff defeat against Houston. He was out-dueled in that game by the Dynamo's Joe Willis, a player who hadn't seen the field in four months and is currently jobless.

IM1.jpg
Portland Timbers

How significant was Attinella late last season? It's hard to say. As well as he played, he came into the team at a point when the Timbers' defense was going from one of the league's worst units to one of its better ones down the stretch.

That might have had something to do with Attinella himself, but the dramatic change in defensive fortune — the Timbers conceded 17 goals in Gleeson's last eight starts, compared to just seven in Attinella's nine-game run to close the season — also lined up with Larrys Mabiala's arrival and Liam Ridgewell's return to the lineup in mid-September.

Ridgewell played in only seven of Gleeson's 21 starts last season, while Mabiala factored into just five. The pair started only one game together — a 3-1 win over the Galaxy in early August — with Gleeson in goal behind them. Simply put, Attinella had better players in front of him.

That isn't to undersell the Tampa native's contribution. He was the sounder goalkeeper last year, and all signs indicate that he has the inside track to be the Opening Day starter.

But Gleeson shouldn't be written off. He's younger and bigger than Attinella, and his shortcomings — positioning, decision-making on crosses, distribution — can be fixed. Even after all the false starts in his career, Gleeson can still be one of the league's best goalkeepers. He has every gift.

The job of cleaning up his game — and restoring his confidence — will fall to Memo Valencia, a longtime associate of Savarese who is effectively replacing Adin Brown as the club's first-team goalkeeping coach.

Compared to Brown, who was hired directly out of the broadcast booth with no professional coaching experience when Mike Toshack departed for St. Lawrence University in the middle of the 2015 season, Valencia's coaching resumé is sterling.

He spent the last five years as Savarese's goalkeeper coach with the Cosmos, overseeing the work of the NASL Golden Glove winner Kyle Reynish in 2013, and has worked with youth national team goalkeepers in the US program for nearly a decade.

Support The Portland Mercury

The kind of impact Valencia can have remains to be seen. But there's a job here for a professional goalkeeping coach.

For both Gleeson and Attinella, the pressure is on. Goalkeeper is the most obvious spot on the field for the Timbers to upgrade, and especially for Gleeson, patience must be running low. Attinella, meanwhile, is looking at his best and possibly only chance to establish himself as an MLS starter.

In a league like MLS where margins are thin and games are competitive, goalkeepers are crucially important players. In the next month, the Timbers must correctly identify theirs.

Sponsored
SLAY Film Fest
In person at the Clinton St. Theater 10/29 & 10/30