Sebastian Blanco, Timbers vs. Loons, 9.22.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Roster Check | Timbers Midfielders

Post six of our eight-part series looking at the depth charts of the Timbers and Thorns FC brings us to the deepest place among PTFC’s positions. Going 10-deep in playable options, the Portland Timbers may have amassed, from top to bottom, one of their league’s best midfields.

Rostered midfielders (in alphabetical order): Sebastián Blanco, Diego Chara, Tomás Conechny, Andrés Flores, Marvin Loría, Cristhian Paredes, Andy Polo, Diego Valeri, Eryk Williamson, Renzo Zambrano

Six levels deep on these depth chart posts, and we’ve come to the plentiful position at Providence Park. Whether you’re looking at high-end talent, near-term potential, or just the variety of tools you need in the box, Portland’s midfield is, well, a word that we shouldn’t use lightly from the preserve of team-branded site: enviable.

So, let’s accept that as a premise, question it, and see if it’s defensible. Is the Timbers midfield depth chart truly enviable? For the trollish who evoke the perspective of, say, Manchester City FC or Liverpool FC, perhaps not, and there may even be some fans of other MLS teams who, themselves having a talented depth chart, look at that word and think, “oh, that’s cute.” But when you consider of the qualities you want in midfield, what’s lacking from the Timbers corps?

Let’s start with the quality that’s most-difficult to come by: high-end talent. On the attacking end, Sebastián Blanco has earned a place in the conversation with the best advanced midfielders in the league, and while players like Seattle’s Nicolás Lodeiro and NYCFC’s Maxi Moralez have also staked claims in this conversation, Blanco’s proved – and proved in the most pressure-filled conditions – that he can be just as influential. There’s no reasonable group of elite MLS attacking midfielders you can form that doesn’t include Sebastián Blanco.

Yet when it comes to attacking talents who’ve distinguished themselves in Portland’s midfield, Blanco is not alone, and while (we can be real about this, can’t we?) there has been a lot of debate over the last few months around Diego Valeri – should he be a Designated Player, being the main focus of that debate – the man put up 16 assists, last year. Now, assists are already a weird stat in a world where teams have dedicated set-piece takers. Add second (hockey) assists to that world, and assists are so diluted to be as confusing as they are valuable. Still, the distance between a 16-assist season and something that should be ignored is the distance between Spotify’s quality and Tidal’s. In this analogy, Valeri is still a Spotify-level talent.

And lest there be any confusion about the depth of Portland’s elite midfield talent, we need only move one and two levels back, to the central and defensive roles, to see the player whose legacy is making him the standard bearer among MLS central midfielders. Perhaps Diego Chara has never had a season that’s captured the national imagination, but as the 33 year old’s consistency is about to touch on a full decade in MLS – and as that consistency is being recognized as just below Best XI quality on a year-by-year basis – the conversation around him has to change. Soon, it has to be asked if his overall value puts him in the conversation as the best central or defensive midfielder the league as ever had. Differing views on the value of peak performance versus longevity mean there’s probably no right answer to that question, but given Chara seems just as influential as he’s ever been, it’s only a concession to admit that, five months short of his 34th birthday, he remains an elite MLS talent.

Beyond the team’s elite talents, though, there’s depth. Look at the list at the top of this article. Almost every one of those players started a meaningful game for the Timbers last year, and while it can be argued that some of those starts were only by necessity, almost all of those players put in at least one performance that should give Timbers fans hope. Even the players who got the least playing time provided highlights, whether it was Tomás Conechny’s nutmeg pass ahead of the game-winning goal at home against Sporting Kansas City, or the shift Eryk Williamson put in during that same game, every midfielder had a moment in 2019 – and this article’s list doesn’t even include Dairon Asprilla and Bill Tuiloma, who also saw time in midfield.

Consider that Andrés Flores played an invaluable role during the integration of the team’s new right back, Jorge Moreira, covering the space behind the Paraguayan attacker while he acclimated to the defensive demands of Major League Soccer. Consider the announcement Marvin Loría made in one of his initial first team appearances, scissoring home a highlight-worthy goal at home against the Houston Dynamo. Consider Renzo Zambrano’s MLS debut in Houston, Andy Polo’s late-season resurgence to a starting role, and the steps Cristhian Paredes took in his second Timbers season to claim his spot next to Chara. These are all options who, when injury, absence or suspension demand, can take a place in the starting XI without significantly diminishing the Timbers’ odds.

There’s also a diversity to these players’ skillsets that only enhances the enviable. Think about the options next to Chara. Paredes casts a classic box-to-box profile, one that’s different from Zambrano’s, one whose skills on the ball recommend him well for either a holding or more advanced role. Williamson has a similar skill level but has tended to be more ambitious while searching for a final ball, while there may be no man on the roster capable of executing a discrete, accountable role than Flores. Likewise, consider the options among the team’s wide midfielders: Polo’s speed, defensive value, and reliability on the ball; Asprilla’s ability to bring a forward’s profile and traits to the wide spaces; Conechny’s versatility to play at multiple levels, inside and out; Blanco’s singular danger, and willingness to embrace any challenge.

There may be other qualities teams want in their midfield, but the last element obvious element to consider is potential. You don’t want all your value in the present. There has to be path to continued success in the future. To that end, Paredes is only 21, as is Conechny. Loría and Williamson are 22. Tuiloma is 24. Polo and Zambrano are 25. Some of those players are still pre-prime, others have just entered theirs, but all seven give Portland some security in its future. It’s not just that all these players are still relatively young. It’s that they’re young and have already made contributions.

Perhaps the Timbers’ midfield corps isn’t the only enviable group in Major League Soccer, but across multiple considerations, it’s certainly enviable. How many MLS teams would swap their midfields for Portland’s, right now?

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