It wasn’t long after the Portland Timbers and their fans experienced the euphoria of winning a first MLS Cup before reality set in – about 24 hours to be exact.
That’s when the Timbers began announcing the decisions they were faced with in building their roster to make another title run in 2016. Gone were key reserves in striker Maximiliano Urruti and defender Norberto Paparatto (both options declined) and part-time starting winger Rodney Wallace (out of contract) literally a day after Portland beat Columbus Crew SC in the Dec. 6 title game at MAPFRE Stadium.
Soon thereafter, left back Jorge Villafana was sold to Liga MX’s Santos Laguna, and former team captain Will Johnson had been shipped out of town in a trade with Toronto FC.
Many were key faces in Portland’s turnaround with head coach Caleb Porter’s arrival in 2013, and all played key roles in their memorable playoff run – stinging a fan base just sobering up from the celebration.
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“The issue is we weren’t able to keep everybody; if we could have kept everybody we probably would have pretty much the same team rolling into the next year, with a few additions because you do always want to get better,” Porter told media in a conference call Wednesday ahead of Thursday's 2016 MLS SuperDraft in Baltimore (10 am PT, live stream). “But with the cap and the league structure, and you see it all the time, that wasn’t able to happen.”
What has happened in the weeks since should give supporters some consolation. At nearly every position where Portland lost a player, they’ve been able to fill the hole.
The Timbers brought in defenders Chris Klute and Zarek Valentin to replace Villafana at left back. Veteran midfielder Ned Grabavoy was acquired to fill not only Johnson’s midfield position – which became more of a depth piece with a late-season change to a 4-3-3 formation that required only one holding midfielder – but also his veteran presence in the locker room. Jack McInerney was just acquired Wednesday to fill Urruti’s absence as a backup to starting striker Fanendo Adi.
Portland also selected veteran defender Jermaine Taylor in the Re-Entry Draft and are “very, very close,” according to general manager Gavin Wilkinson, to signing him to replace Paparatto’s reserve role behind starting center backs Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers. The Timbers are still on the search for a winger that would replace Wallace's likely departure.
“Every player that was lost, I believe and so does Caleb, we’ve been able to replace with quality players within the league,” Wilkinson said.
And that’s important, Porter said, due to the fact that depth at many positions was a key reason behind their championship run. Urruti scored a game-tying goal late in extra-time to force penalty kicks in their Knockout Round win over Sporting Kansas City, and Wallace bagged what would prove to be the winning goal against Columbus in MLS Cup.
Paparatto also filled in for an injured Ridgewell in the clinching match of the Western Conference Championship against FC Dallas.
And once again, that will be a necessity if they are to repeat while also managing their participation in the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League.
“So the nice thing is we’ve been able to keep the majority of our core starting players, but like everybody knows and we’ve talked about, we’ve lost some key depth pieces, and those pieces are very, very important,” Porter said. “So we’re really excited and feel very good about where we’re at in replacing those pieces with quality depth players that fit our team, the way we play.”
Wilkinson and Porter also confirmed that while offers were made to both Wallace and Paparatto to remain in the Rose City, both players are looking for increased roles, to maintain or increase their current salary levels and are likely headed to overseas leagues. The cases of Johnson, Villafana and Urruti were also very similar.
Johnson, who Porter named captain upon his arrival in 2013, would have been a reserve in Portland this season, and his trade to Toronto FC allows him to play a larger role. Villafana’s stellar form last season set him up for an opportunity to play in Mexico, where he spent some of his formative years. And Urruti, who was signed by Dallas and will presumably be given a chance to start, would have required a larger budget number than the salary cap would allow, Wilkinson said.
“These are the unfortunate things that happen within this league when you have a winning team,” Porter said. “So moving into next year we needed to replace those guys and make sure we have a team with depth.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.