Larrys Mabiala Portland Timbers

Timbers 2021 preseason opens with memories of 2020's strengths, weaknesses

BEAVERTON, Ore. — The Portland Timbers usually begin preseason at their Training Center in Beaverton, Oregon, but come February, they’re often on the road. Costa Rica. Arizona, before that. Back in the nascent days of their Major League Soccer era, Portland went down to Southern California for sun. After a short period of training in or around Portland, the team was usually on a plane to a warmer locale.

This year is a little different. The Major League Soccer season will start later than usual — mid-April, compared to the beginning of March — and while Portland’s first competitive game in the 2021 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League kicks off slightly earlier, training for the new season has begun a month later than usual. That’s meant an extra-long offseason and, apparently, extra anticipation of returning to the field.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time to train with the full team,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said via video in his season’s first press conference. “It’s been a long time. It feels a lot longer than what it was, but we’re now very glad that we are now training and starting.

“The guys are very hungry, very eager to come back and start working. It’s great to be back again.”

A few players from the Timbers’ team are in Portland but haven’t been cleared for full training, having yet to complete their quarantine periods after returning to the country. A few others are training apart from the group, with injuries keeping players like last year’s MLS Is Back tournament Most Valuable Player Sebastián Blanco working apart from the larger group.

Within that larger group, though, were some notable new faces. Fullback Claudio Bravo, signed during the offseason from Banfield in Argentina, completed his first full session under Savarese on Wednesday, as did fell fullback Josecarlos Van Rankin, who was acquired on loan earlier this month from C.D. Guadalajara.

Amid a group with relatively little turnover from last season, their new faces were exceptions. Building on 2020 appears to be the rule.

“We’re coming from a year in which we did so many good things,” Savarese explained, “including winning the MLS Is Back tournament (and) being able to play closer to how I wanted to play. We improved so much. This year, now, we have to remember that we can improve more, correct some things that we need to improve.”

Savarese brought up the team’s Achilles heel in 2020, conceding late, saying, “we allowed too many goals last year in the final minutes. That’s something that we have to make sure, this year, doesn’t happen again. Because that conditioned us, even in games like Dallas,” in the playoffs, he cited. “In the end, we gave the opposition the possibility of getting back into the game.”

The additions of Bravo and Van Rankin could help, as could another year’s experience for Pablo Bonilla, who debuted at right back in 2020. A second season in Major League Soccer for center back Dario Zuparic should be a benefit, too, but after a season where conceding late goals became a regret, returning the defense’s key parts is a bet on management’s part. The quality of Zuparic, central-defense partner Larrys Mabiala and goalkeeper Steve Clark will win out, the team’s roster management argues. Continuity, it implies, could be a solution.

“I think it’s a positive thing,” captain Diego Valeri said when asked about the players’ “familiarity” with each other. “It’s very positive that we are almost the same roster. We’ll build from it, and keep building from it.”

“I see no limits,” forward Jeremy Ebobisse said, when asked about the year’s prospects for both himself and the team. “As an individual, obviously there were a lot of good moments last year. We always have to be ambitious and not rest on the success that you found on the field in a given moment, because you know it can be taken away the second you get complacent. That also goes for the team.

“We won MLS Is Back. We hit a really good stride toward the end of the regular season. And then obviously, a little bit of a disappointing result against FC Dallas. The way that we lost was just so emblematic of our season: giving up goals late in games. Now that we’ve seen the height of where this team can go to, being at times a team that is really feared, but also the lows, which is wasting all of our good work, we need to maintain the high level …”

In every preseason, we hear clichés about a team’s ambition. In soccer, they’re sometimes called chestnuts. You bring them out, break them open, and let everybody feel better for the nostalgia. Undoubtedly, some that came through after today’s training in Beaverton. It a code we use to talk about sports.

With the Timbers, though, there was also some honesty in Wednesday’s thoughts, and in the team’s assessment of 2020’s mistakes, that honestly was blunt. The team knows what it could have been and, in the late goals it conceded, knows why it came up short.

In bringing the bulk of last year’s group forward, though, the organization is showing confidence that the current core can find their own solutions. To the extent that confidence gets repaid, we’ll find out starting Apr. 6 at CD Marathón.

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