The 2016 MLS season starts this Sunday, and for the Portland Timbers, this campaign will have a unique feel.
The core group of players that won the Rose City's first major professional sports championship since 1977 and paraded down Broadway last December is still very much intact at Providence Park, with names like Nagbe, Valeri, Chara, and Borchers forever stapled into Portland lore.
But around that core, and indeed around the aura they finished last year with, faces and situations have changed. This Timbers team and Timbers season will be different — as different as a title defense is from a title charge. Here are the expectations, hopes, and fears for the 2016 Portland Timbers.
The Expectation: Kwarasey was one of MLS' best goalkeepers last year — and speaking of lore, one look at his exploits in the eleven-round shootout against Sporting Kansas City in last year's Wild Card game tells you everything you need to know about the Ghanian's moxie, poise, and flair for the dramatic. We should see another strong campaign.
The Hope: Consistency. Kwarasey's stretches of outstanding play would invariably be followed by stretches in which he would look considerably shakier. If Kwarasey can be better in the air a touch quicker off his line, he can be an All-Star this year.
The Fear: That Kwarasey's bad moments — like his gaffe that led to Columbus' only goal in the final — become more pronounced.
The Expectation: For a backup goalkeeper, Gleeson is in an unusual position. At just 25 years old, the New Zealander is entering his seventh year in Portland. The team will be more than comfortable if he has to step in, as he did successfully in a playoff match last year against Vancouver.
The Hope: That Gleeson continues to develop into a top player. After finally winning the backup job outright at the end of last season, the goalkeeper signed a long-term contract extension. The club is more than familiar with Gleeson's huge potential — the remaining question is how best to harness it.
The Fear: That Gleeson doesn't have any upward mobility in Portland behind Kwarasey, and that his progress remains stalled at the USL level or on the Timbers bench. Playing time is going to be an issue.
Depending on how the club uses Gleeson — how much they want him to drop down to play for T2, for instance — the Timbers' third goalkeeper will be involved. Draft pick Wade Hamilton signed a first-team contract on Tuesday, and will most likely play for T2. Justin Luthy was Gleeson's T2 backup last year, and he's still in Portland as well.
The Expectation: Believe it or not, Powell is entering his fourth MLS season with the Timbers. Now the Timbers' most senior fullback, the Jamaican international will expected to continue making gains in his reading of the game while playing the breakneck defense that led to him to a finish amongst the league leaders in tackles last year.
The Hope: That Powell can stay healthy and make some real, substantive progress in his attacking play. If he can make smarter decisions on the ball in the attacking third and begin to make an impact with his crossing, Powell can be the kind of complete fullback that Jorge Villafaña was at the end of last season — and considering the uncertainty at left-back and the importance of fullbacks in the 4-3-3, that could be imperative.
The Fear: A lot of shots hitting the MAC building. It would be an absolute shame, but if Powell doesn't commit to improving offensively, he's hit his ceiling in terms of development.
The Expectation: Ridgewell is himself an elder statesman now, officially the Timbers' first-team MLS Cup-winning captain. The DP center-back has been noteworthy in his two years here for his professionalism and organizational presence in the Timbers' defense — a presence that was clearly missed on Sunday against Chicago. Ridgewell's tidiness is a terrific compliment for Nat Borchers' shot-blocking ability, and the pair should be formidable again in 2016.
The Hope: Aside from his consistent presence, a few more goals wouldn't hurt. Ridgewell had the yips in front of goal last year — though his single tally, bundled home against Dallas in the Western Conference Final — couldn't have come at a better time.
The Fear: That the wear-and-tear on Ridgewell's body — he's currently nursing a calf problem — begins to take its toll. Ridgewell, thanks to consecutive offseason loans to England, has now been playing soccer for almost thirty straight months. Now in his 30s, it's only a matter of time before Ridgewell starts to slow down.
The Expectation: That Borchers is, as he has been for more than a decade, the very foundation of his team.
The Hope: Borchers' 2015 was truly the stuff of legend. Anything approaching those heights would work just fine.
The Fear: Now 34, Borchers probably has just two years left as an everyday starter. If his pace begins to fail him, his effectiveness will slowly but surely decline — a la Borchers' former RSL teammate Jamison Olave — and that's a sight no one in Portland wants to see.
The Expectation: Klute was brought in to replace the departed Villafaña, and — considering the swiftness with which the Timbers acquired him — it was a move that Caleb Porter and Gavin Wilkinson felt more than comfortable in making. But Klute's unexpected trouble in rehabbing from a minor offseason surgery has thrown the beginning of his season into doubt. It's been an inauspicious start.
The Hope: That there won't be any notable drop-off from Villafaña once Klute gets healthy. In the only year in which he was an everyday starter — 2013 with Colorado — Klute was tremendous, generating national team buzz. Portland is giving the fullback, after several inconsistent years, a chance to recapture that form.
The Fear: That Klute's last two lost seasons, as well as his injury trouble, have crushed his confidence. Diego Valeri identified replacing Villafaña as the Timbers' biggest key to defending their title, and if Klute isn't up to the task, the Timbers will be in trouble.
The Expectation: That Taylor can fill Norberto Paparatto's shoes as Portland's overqualified third center-back. Taylor may also be called on to fill in at left-back depending on the status of those around him. He should be on the field plenty in 2016.
The Hope: Taylor, who has been capped 83 times by Jamaica, is a hugely competent and experienced player. He certainly impressed Porter throughout preseason with the composed and collected nature of his defending, and the Timbers shouldn't miss a beat when he steps into the team.
The Fear: One of the reasons Paparatto was so valuable was his height and arial ability, and, at 5'11, Taylor isn't especially good in the air. With neither Borchers nor Ridgewell standing as particularly menacing physical presences either, Taylor isn't a perfect fit.
The Expectation: As a former Akron Zip, Valentin re-enters MLS this year as a known quantity to Caleb Porter. He can play just about anywhere across the backline, and will be expected to provide reliable depth.
The Hope: Due to Klute's injury, Valentin may have the opportunity to win himself the left-back job. At just 24, he still has plenty of upside — the hope is that Porter will be able to get the most out of him.
The Fear: Valentin looked extremely limited at left-back in preseason — like a less guileful version of Michael Harrington. If he has to play major minutes, the Portland may be playing with a hand tied behind its back.
The Expectation: Peay asserted himself last season as a constant presence and rising force in the Timbers' organization behind Alvas Powell at right-back. Considering Powell's injury history, plus the Timbers' CONCACAF Champions League committments, Peay should get more minutes this year.
The Hope: At times in 2015 — like in the 5-2 rout of LA last October — Peay was unrecognizable from Powell. Peay has an extremely bright future. If he can be more aggressive getting forward this year, he can begin to think about life as an everyday starter — either in Portland or elsewhere.
The Fear: Playing time could also be an issue for Peay, who doesn't really need more USL minutes to further his development. There's also a question about position — at 6'3-180, Peay might be better suited to play center-back, a spot that offers even fewer first-team minutes.
Anthony Manning and Andy Thoma both got first-team minutes in preseason, and will both start for T2. Manning might have the brighter future, but the Timbers will be keeping an eye on them both.
The Expectation: Another excellent and omnipresent campaign. Over the last five years, Chara has been an automatic starter for the Timbers, but the switch to the 4-3-3 last fall served only to highlight the Colombian's talents further. There isn't another #6 in the league who can play the single pivot like Chara. No one else has his combination of engine and precision.
The Hope: Chara is capable of tearing teams apart, especially when space exists later in games. Teams will pack it in against Portland this year, and more chance-taking from Chara offensively could pay dividends.
The Fear: Chara's penchant for recklessness was costly at times last year — notably a late red card against Houston in August — and Chara can always afford to cut down on the needless, mostly harmless fouls that have given him such an unsavory reputation with MLS' referees.
The Expectation: Nagbe took a long awaited leap last year, catalyzed by his move from the wing into the center midfield. Now a full-fledged US international, Nagbe should — for another several years — continue to get better and better.
The Hope: Nagbe can take over games when he wants to. He can dribble by every defender in the league. The key with Nagbe, as it always has been, is getting him to play cocky. The minute he decides to turn his shoulder, the Timbers get 50% better.
The Fear: He is certainly more comfortable than he ever has been in his central midfield role, but one of the concerns is that Nagbe will begin to drop too far back to pick up the ball and not impact games in the spaces the Timbers want him too. When teams put eight defenders behind the ball, Nagbe has a tendency to settle for easy options and fade from games.
The Expectation: It was a tough journey for Diego Valeri last year after his ACL injury, and Valeri himself felt that he only began to get back to his best during the playoff run last fall. In 2016, Valeri should be fully healthy and eager to put together an All-Star year.
The Hope: Valeri was one of MLS' most prolific players in 2014, which was his second full season in MLS. It took him time to tighten and tune his game after returning to the field last year, but Valeri to return to a double digit goal-scoring figure this year. The Argentine has emerged as something of a locker-room leader as well, taking to the armband with Liam Ridgewell out of the lineup this preseason.
The Fear: Above anything else, another knee injury. As long as Valeri stays healthy, he'll do well — though he he often takes a long time to settle into games.
The Expectation: Asprilla enters the new season familiar with his surroundings and expecting to start every day. Physically, Asprilla's combination of pace and power make him well-suited for MLS — and stylistically, his no-nonsense attacking approach provides good balance to the intricacies of the players around him.
The Hope: That this is a breakout year for Asprilla much like 2013 was for Rodney Wallace. Asprilla's cannon of a right foot has plenty of goals in it — you get the feeling that all the Colombian needs a little confidence and rhythm.
The Fear: Asprilla has struggled with injuries at times as well, and was fell in and out of Caleb Porter's good graces last year. With virtually nothing behind him, the Timbers need to accelerate Asprilla's growth in terms of consistency. If that's a bridge too far, Portland will be in trouble on the flanks.
The Expectation: There are big expectations for Melano, who salvaged what was an extremely frustrating maiden season in MLS by contributing in a big way during the latter stages of the Cup run. But the honeymoon for Melano is over. With a $5 million price-tag around his neck, anything short of ten goals will be a disappointment.
The Hope: Melano can suck for 89 minutes and still win a game. His pace is almost unmatched in MLS, and his very presence changes matches by opening up space. Confidence and comfort will be key in his taking the next step towards fulfilling his huge potential.
The Fear: Melano isn't a very good soccer player. He's just fast. And that can get you pretty far — as last season evidenced several times — but it's not the whole ballgame. Melano killed more attacks than he made with his Jorge Perlaza-esq technical play — and for what the Timbers have committed to him, they need more composure and toughness.
The Expectation: Jewsbury's is the steadiest hand in the business. He'll make any game he's in cleaner and more organized.
The Hope: Ever the professional, it's hasn't always been obvious how resilient Jewsbury is. He's now playing a position that isn't demanding physically and plays to his strengths as a distributor and game-manager — and as last season showed us time and again, he can still deal with the league's very best. He has another good year — at least — in him.
The Fear: When Jewsbury will see the field in league play is unclear. The presence of Ben Zemanski will most likely cut into his playing time, meaning Jewsbury's role this year could be undeservedly and dramatically reduced.
The Expectation: Perhaps even more than the formation change, it was Ben Zemanski who pushed Will Johnson out of Portland. Zemanski's extremely positive recovery from the ACL tear he suffered in preseason last year gave the Timbers confidence that he could play a major role this year. If he hasn't lost any of his athleticism, he'll be one of the best backup midfielders in the league.
The Hope: That Zemanski stays healthy and begins to develop his attacking game — a move which would both make Zemanski a more valuable player, and get him on the field more.
The Fear: Zemanski has done better in his career as a starter than as a defensive substitute — and with Chara entrenched in front of him, it's hard to see where Zemanski will get starts.
The Expectation: Grabavoy has the respect and affection of a number of smart soccer minds around MLS — certainly Jason Kreis', as well as Porter's — and he was integral to the RSL sides that the Timbers couldn't solve at the beginning of Caleb Porter's tenure. Grabavoy was brought in for all-purpose midfield depth.
The Hope: Exceptionally intelligent and wily in tight spaces, Grabavoy can be a player that the Timbers use to both improve the quality of their football and fill in dependably when Nagbe is away on USMNT duty. This is a player who knows exactly what he's doing every time he steps onto the field, and championship teams always have a number of those.
The Fear: Grabavoy had a tough season last year in New York, where fans never took to his understated style. At 5'7, Grabavoy can in no way change games — in some ways, he's reminiscent of Gaston Fernandez — and he's very much a system player. Grabavoy didn't have a great preseason, and a slow start in Portland might set up him for another frustrating campaign.
Rookies Nico Brett and Ben Polk had solid preseasons and may get looks on the wing, where the Timbers are still looking to make a first-team signing. This could be a make-or-break year for 2015 first round pick Nick Besler, who disappointed last year.
The Expectation: It took a long time, but Adi finally won over his many critics at the end of last year with a series of domineering performances. Everyone deserves a slice of credit, but without Adi's goals, the Timbers don't end up anywhere near MLS Cup. Happy, settled, and confident, Adi should put up at least fifteen goals in 2016.
The Hope: That Adi can continue developing into one of MLS' best #9s. Adi has always worked exceptionally hard, but he made huge strides in his hold-up play last year. If he continues to get more sure-footed, the Timbers' front six is going to be the best in the league.
The Fear: Like most forwards, Adi is a confidence player. A barren run at the wrong time could spell trouble, especially if Jack McInerney is a downgrade at the backup position from Maxi Urruti.
The Expectation: McInerney's is another case in which the Timbers looked within MLS to replace a valued contributor. With the team unable to hang onto Urruti, there will be plenty of minutes for McInerney to make his mark as a backup forward.
The Hope: McInerney has bounced all over MLS in the last several years, playing in Philadelphia, Montreal, and Columbus before landing in Portland this offseason. This is a player who scored twenty goals in MLS when he was just 20 and 21, and, surrounded by good players and relatively low expectations, Portland is as good a place as any for McInerney to put his career back on track.
The Fear: McInerney has bounced around for a reason: He hasn't been as good as advertised since 2013. McInerney's distribution last Wednesday night against Vancouver was nightmarish, and his lack of size makes him a poor fit for the Timbers' 4-3-3.