The Portland Timbers’ 2023 season ended early in embarrassing fashion last November with a lopsided loss at Providence Park that ended the team’s playoff hopes. When the dust settled, 2023 was the second-worst season in the club’s MLS history.

On Saturday night, the Timbers will return to Providence Park for their 2024 season opener—complete with a new manager, a new goalkeeper, a new center back, and a new opportunity to allay plenty of doubts about the quality of their offseason decision-making. 

Here are six questions facing the team heading into 2024.  

1. How will Evander show up?

The Timbers made Evander their club-record signing last offseason, and, in many ways, the Brazilian demonstrated his quality in 2023. He led the team with nine goals and added four assists, growing stronger over the course of the season as he settled in Portland.  

But it wasn’t all rosy. Evander’s workrate was unimpressive. He was largely poor defensively and disappeared from games for long stretches. His talent was obvious, but the strength of his commitment and leadership qualities less so.

So it didn’t make for ideal reading when Evander said in a press conference this week that he’d really like to be in Rio de Janeiro right now. 

“There was almost an agreement with [Brazilian club] Flamengo, I would really like to have gone,” Evander said in Portuguese. “As a career objective it was very interesting for me to return to Brazil, to a big club… But here the club also has a project for me, so it didn’t work out very well.” 

Evander said he’s “focused” on the upcoming season and has to do his best in Portland, but the fact that he wanted to return to Brazil in the offseason is less than ideal—especially given the existing concerns about his level of buy-in. 

The other issue with Evander: he’s not an elite creator. He was 95th in the league in goal-creating actions last season, and while his shot-creating actions were much better, his numbers placed him firmly outside the realm of the league’s top playmakers. 

Evander should contribute in plenty of other ways, but it means that the chance creation might have to come from somewhere else for a team that struggled to create high-quality looks for much of last year—either from other players or from whatever system new manager Phil Neville installs. 

2. Do the pieces fit together in midfield?

Evander, clearly, remains a central part of the team’s plans. Neville has said so from his first press conference as manager, when he revealed he tried to sign Evander when he was in charge of Miami. 

The question, then, is how the manager will construct his midfield around the Brazilian—and it’s not straightforward.

Neville appears set to start the year in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and Evander will likely slot in the number ten. But Evander tends to drop deep, especially when he feels like he’s not seeing enough of the ball, which is the kind of space both midfielders Eryk Williamson and Santiago Moreno like to occupy.

All three players, on their day, are excellent. Getting Williamson’s ball-progression back after his ACL tear last spring could be particularly big. But can the same lineup accommodate three players and retain any balance? Can it defend?  

Neither Evander nor Williamson are particularly engaged defenders, and Diego Chará, who will turn 38 in early April, may need more help with defensive duties in midfield than he has in years past. 

Neville favored Williamson to Cristhian Paredes as Chará’s partner in central midfield during preseason, but Paredes’ doggedness in all phases of play was pivotal in the Timbers’ abbreviated late-season resurgence in 2023. Midfielder David Ayala, who impressed at the beginning of last year, is coming back into the fold as well. 

In some sense, these are good problems to have: If everyone stays healthy and happy, the Timbers will have a ton of quality in midfield. But figuring out how to get the most out of that quality is likely going to be a challenge. 

3. Does Phil Neville know what he’s doing?

Which leads to some other questions, such as: can Neville coach? 

The hiring of the former Manchester United and Everton player was greeted with intense skepticism by supporters, who criticized both Neville’s history of making sexist comments on Twitter and his underwhelming managerial pedigree. 

Neville, to his credit, has said the right things since arriving—apologizing again for the tweets in his first press conference and repeatedly making clear his desire to build a relationship with the club’s core supporters. Neville has done plenty of media work, and he has an affable, talkative personality that has endeared him to plenty of people around the league.

That personality and his experience in the game helped him manage big personalities like Gonzalo Higuain in Miami, and it should help him in Portland as well. 

But it very much remains to be seen whether Neville can mold this Timbers team tactically into more than the sum of its parts. He never developed a recognizable style of play in Miami, and his team’s underlying attacking numbers were bleak. 

Does he stick with a 4-2-3-1 as the team’s primary formation? Does he favor a back three? A three-man midfield? Neville has spoken about the value of tactical flexibility during the preseason, but the Timbers could use a clear, progressive template to play from. 

4. Does Ned Grabavoy know what he’s doing?

Grabavoy took over as general manager in Portland under extremely challenging circumstances, stepping in when Gavin Wilkinson was fired in 2022 for his myriad offenses documented in the Yates Report on abuse and misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) without a full complement of front office personnel around him.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, last year was a struggle. This year, it will be easier to evaluate the quality of Grabavoy’s work. 

So far, there have been bright spots: Grabavoy did impressive work in signing two established, top-tier MLS veterans in goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau from LAFC and center back Kamal Miller from Miami over the winter, players who should instantly improve what was the third-worst defense in the league last year. 

But Grabavoy in 2024 will largely be judged on two things: the hiring of Neville and the quality of the marquee signing Grabavoy said could arrive within the next seven to ten days. 

The consensus around the league is that the Timbers need a center forward who can score 15-plus goals if they want to compete for real this year. It’s on Grabavoy to identify that player and bring him in—preferably sooner rather than later.  

5. Is there enough depth in key positions?

Yes, there’s plenty of depth in central midfield. There’s also depth at center back with the addition of Miller and the club’s decision to hang onto Dario Zuparic despite a reported trade request at the beginning of the offseason. 

That’s all important. Elsewhere on the field, though, the Timbers are startlingly thin. There is no natural backup for Claudio Bravo at left back, and Bravo is hurt to start the year. 

For the moment, pending a major Designated Player signing, there are a combined three MLS goals backing up Felipe Mora up top. There’s precious little depth on the wings either, where the Timbers have only Moreno, Dairon Asprilla, and Antony available to start the campaign. 

If the Timbers can add a marquee forward and stay healthy, the lack of depth in key areas might not be a problem. But the Timbers haven’t stayed healthy in years, and have already suffered two significant injuries in preseason in Bravo and Marvin Loría. Mora is likely out for week one as well. 

6. How broken is this club’s relationship with its supporters? And is the club interested in repairing it?

 Earlier this month, the new owners of the Portland Thorns introduced themselves to the city alongside a number of Thorns personnel at Providence Park. 

It was a joyous day, years in the making—an appropriate conclusion, finally, to the sexual misconduct coverup scandal that forced Merritt Paulson to sell the team to Lisa Bhathal Merage, Alex Bhathal, and their Southern California-based RAJ Sports group. 

It remains to be seen what kinds of owners the Bhathals will be for the Thorns, but the air of anticipation for a Paulson-less season, one not clouded in the same way by the weight of the Paul Riley scandal, is palpable. 

The Thorns are free. The Timbers, meanwhile, are not. While Paulson has sold the Thorns, he’s keeping the Timbers, and—despite his resignation as CEO and vow to step away from the day-to-day operations of the club in October 2022— remains busy running the team. 

Paulson was directly involved in selecting Neville as Giovani Savarese’s replacement and, according to reporting by the Oregonian’s Ryan Clarke, was also heavily involved in selecting DaBella as the team’s new jersey sponsor. 

Paulson may have replaced himself as CEO, but he’s still in charge of this club—still ensuring that it cannot break from the shadow he, former President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson, and former President of Business Mike Golub, cast over it by failing to protect the club’s players, families, and employees. 

At this point, with the dust from the Riley scandal and its aftermath all but settled, Paulson and his legion detractors in the fanbase appear to be at an impasse. The games are going on, and plenty of them will be plenty of fun this year. Just not, for many, as fun as they used to be. 

The Portland Timbers will play the Colorado Rapids this Saturday, February 24 at 7:30 pm at Providence Park. Tickets and season info here.