With just two weeks to go until the start of the 2016 season, the Portland Timbers will take the field at Providence Park for the first time as defending MLS champions.
On Sunday night at 5 PM, the Timbers take on NASL side Minnesota United in the first game of the club's annual preseason tournament — the Simple Invitational — which runs through next Saturday with games to come against the Vancouver Whitecaps and Chicago Fire. Here are three things to watch for.
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1. A Harbinger Of Things To Come
These preseason performances don't lie. During the Caleb Porter era, they have always accurately foretold the Timbers' spring fortunes.
In 2013, Porter's first year, Portland hummed in this tournament, playing at a level of soccer the Timbers never approached during the John Spencer era. Those games were the first testaments to the abilities of the club's new coach. The Timbers would go on to make their first playoff appearance and reach the Western Conference Final.
In 2014, the Timbers slunk through the tournament — out-of-synch in attack while trying to integrate Gaston Fernandez, and out-of-synch in defense while trying to integrate Norberto Paparatto. Sure enough, a dismal start to that season cost the Timbers a playoff berth in the fall.
Last year was a mixed bag. Portland was sound defensively but dismal offensively. Gaston Fernandez would lose his starting spot and his footing at the club, and the club never really broke out of that attacking malaise for good until midway through October.
The point is this: these games are going to say a lot about where this team is, and where it can expect to be going into the summer.
2. Left Back
The Timbers held onto nine starters from their championship team of 2015. The only truly vacated spot is at left back, where Jorge Villafaña was sold to Santos Laguna in Liga MX just days after the MLS Cup win in Columbus.
The man tapped to replace Villafaña, Chris Klute, has had a rough preseason. His recovery from what was once thought to be a minor knee injury has been slower than expected, and the Timbers are preparing for the possibility that he won't be ready for opening day.
Porter's options include several other newcomers. Zarek Valentin, a former Akron Zip brought back to MLS from Norway this offseason, was the starting left-back for the preseason games in Tucson, but his performances didn't inspire much confidence. Jermaine Taylor, acquired primarily to replace Norberto Paparatto, can play fullback and should get a chance to win the job temporarily as well.
Liam Ridgewell, who has just recently returned from a loan to Brighton, can play left-back as well. Either he or Taylor will start there on Sunday, with the other player starting alongside Nat Borchers at center-back.
When asked at MLS Media Days what the Timbers' key to repeating was, Diego Valeri told Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl — unflinchingly and unequivocally — that the key was successfully replacing Villafaña. That process is off to a shaky start.
3. Dairon Asprilla
Dairon Asprilla's place in Timbers lore is cemented thanks to his huge contributions during the playoffs last season, but, when zooming out, the Columbian's first MLS season was a mixed bag.
At various points during the season — especially when it mattered most — Asprilla's direct pace and power on the wing won him minutes and plaudits. But he disappeared at other times, and only started ten regular season games.
With Rodney Wallace's departure for Portugal as a backdrop, Asprilla is being tasked this season with being an everyday starter. Thanks to his solid preseason — and the play of rookies Neco Brett and Ben Polk — the Timbers are looking for a backup, not a starter, to replace Wallace.
Asprilla used the Simple Invitational last year to unseat Fernandez, this year, he'll be looking to use it to cement his starting position and begin to repay the faith showed in him by his manager.
The Timbers are expecting big things out of Lucas Melano's sophomore season. It'll be interesting to see how comfortable he looks on Sunday.
Darlington Nagbe just went through his first full camp with Jurgen Klinsmann's US national team — normally that'd be a cause for concern, but this year's January camp was much less intense than it has been in years past. Still, with just one month's rest and a new baby, how fresh will Nagbe look?
The Timbers opened the tournament last year with a game against Vancouver that went horribly awry as Ben Zemanski tore his ACL and, in an extremely physical match the Timbers got two red cards. This year's remedy is putting the Vancouver game on Wednesday night, when the reserves play, instead of on the weekends when it's the starters.
Zemanski's comeback has been so impressive — so far — that the Timbers felt comfortable selling George Fochive two weeks ago. His return to action Providence Park will be one of the highlights of Sunday's action.
The intrigue is building. The 2016 season is almost here.