BEAVERTON, Ore. – For better or worse, the Portland Timbers’ preseason has been relatively free of debate. At least, when it comes to questions about the roster, it has.
Felipe Mora’s signing was likely the team’s final piece of major business before the season. As far as the depth chart is concerned, only backup right back is in doubt, with trialist Chris Duvall continuing to emerge as a potential option both there and in central defense.
Even in the starting lineup, where the offseason arrived with questions about multiple positions, things seem to be settling in. The patterns over the first four preseason games have been unmistakable, with the last two starting lineups unchanged. Steve Clark has returned as the starter in goal; a backline of, from left to right, of Jorge Villafaña, Dario Zuparic, Larrys Mabiala, and Jorge Moreira has emerged; a deep midfield tandem of Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes is sitting behind an attacking trio of (again, left to right) Sebastián Blanco, Diego Valeri and Yimmi Chara. Mora has been the choice, thus far, up top.
Andy Polo and Julio Cascante are the only other players to start during the preseason, but neither have been in an opening XI since the team’s second game in Costa Rica. Cascante got the call in game one against his old team, Deportivo Saprissa, while Polo’s starts came in the absence of Paredes, then the need to manage early minutes for Yimmi Chara.
Even with those exceptions, it appears a clear starting XI has, for the Timbers, already emerged.
“We are being steady right now to try to make sure that we give the right minutes to all the players. So, it has looked consistent with the guys that we’ve been using,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, when asked if his team had already established a clear “pecking order.”
“I think there are some battles between that first lineup that we are looking to play [out], because there are some guys who are competing in a very good way to try to start our first match of the season. Also, there are some players who are really doing well to create that depth that we want, to make sure we have that depth we are going to encounter.”
Depth has been a persistent theme during Savarese’s two-plus years in Portland, with the team’s roster construction emphasizing quantity since a squad overhaul before the 2018 season. It’s a value Savarese continues to emphasize, even with the likely choices for March 1’s opening game being to surface.
“We are going to have a lot of matches during the regular season,” he emphasizes. “We are going to play U.S. Open Cup games. We are going to be in Leagues Cup. We are going to have players who are going to go to the national team, at some moments. So we need to be prepared, and the guys are doing a great job to make sure that they’re prepared.”
Still, it’s difficult not to be curious about “some [starting lineup] battles” being left to play out. Where, among the XI we’re seeing now, are changes most likely to happen?
The most obvious question is at striker, where the team’s last Designated Player signing of the offseason, Polish forward Jarek Niezgoda, is just now approaching a full return to training. Since the 24-year-old underwent a heart ablation procedure before the finalization of his transfer from Legia Warsaw, his return to play has been a cautious one. The Timbers not only have depth at striker, between Mora and the returning Jeremy Ebobisse, but also have their entire season in front of them. Understandably, there may be no rush to get Niezgoda on the field on March 1.
When Niezgoda does return, striker becomes the most interesting question in the team. Will Mora retain his starting spot? Given the two have yet to share the field together, any response would be pure speculation. But the context of their signings is telling. Niezgoda was signed first, and with the team’s last DP spot. Mora was brought in slightly later, and was done so as an Allocation Money acquisition.
There is another possibility, though – one Savarese has not only publicly shared since Niezgoda’s signing but used at the end of the 2019 season. Given the stylistic differences between Ebobisse, Mora and Niezgoda, the team could play with two forwards, perhaps going to a look that allows either Sebastián Blanco and Diego Valeri to alternate between a forward, false nine position and attacking midfield. Might the possible changes to the Timbers’ starting XI be about shape and personnel?
If so, there’s a different set of questions. Instead of choosing which forward plays, a shift in formation would require at least one of the team’s attacking midfielders to either sit or adapt to a new position. Blanco, the team’s key attacking player, seems highly unlikely to be left out of any setup. Does he move back to central midfield in a new look, as he did at points last season? Or, does Valeri or another of the team’s DPs, Yimmi Chara, end up outside the starting XI?
These are the types of debates that both define offseasons and, in the context of meaningless games, are largely irrelevant. Where the discussions matter, though, is in framing our March 1 world. The moment the Timbers announce their choice XI for Minnesota United’s home-opening visit, the questions become real. What does the team do at striker, going forward? And no matter what shape Savarese chooses against the Loons, how long until the Timbers try another?
This is part of the world the Timbers choose when opting for depth. Portland is unlikely to every be a team that goes out and spends for the world’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s, or able to pay the high fee for an emerging star like Miguel Almirón, at the time Atlanta United brought the Paraguayan to Major League Soccer. Instead, Portland has to make up the margins with quantity, both by making sure it has fewer weaknesses throughout the team but also ensuring, in the need to come up with a variety of solutions, the roster is stacked with ways to be flexible. That flexibility not only means the ability to change things midstream, if needed, but also makes the early settling on a set XI slightly more remarkable. Is this settling a sign of something real, or just the way we tend to frame those irrelevant questions so early in a season?
Dig deeper, and the other questions about Portland’s starting lineup are even more speculative, having even less grounding in issues the coaching staff may be concerned about. From the stands’ distance, though, it’s still worth wondering when Marco Farfan can challenge Villafaña’s place at left back, especially given Farfan had briefly worked his way into the starting XI last summer. Although Zuparic has quickly made the notion of him fighting for time a thin one, will his regular-season adjustment to MLS prove as smooth as his preseason one? And in goal, will Steve Clark become the first starter in three years to retain the number one’s gloves from March into summer?
Or, are we really, already, seeing Portland’s likely starting lineup? The forward battle will surely come, but in the 10 places behind the striker, have we already got an early look at what, on most nights, will be the 2020 Timbers?