PORTLAND, Ore. – It had only been five days since the Portland Timbers, brokenhearted, left Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium following their loss in the 2018 MLS Cup, but in the faces of president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson, head coach Giovanni Savarese and newly promoted technical director Ned Grabavoy, the next chapter of an MLS offseason was already apparent.
Sitting in Providence Park’s press room, the Timbers’ decision makers were asked, perfunctorily, about their lingering feelings from MLS Cup. But most of the questions in the season’s final press conference targeted what’s yet to come: contract options and extensions; an offseason’s roster decisions; work to do before a soon-to-arrive preseason.
Roughly seven weeks from the media session, players will be returning. New training sessions will be planned, as will the progression from those initial workouts to, in early March, the Timbers’ first game of the 2019 season. Depth charts will be crafted and then evolve, aches will accompany pains from the athletes’ winter slumbers, and every decision from the Timbers’ brain trust will, finally, move from theory to practice.
Last week at Providence Park, those theories carried the day, with Portland’s higher-ups providing some insight into the team’s plans for the nascent offseason. Here are five takeaways to take from the 22-minute interrogation:
1. Ned Grabavoy outlines his role.
Portland’s new technical director has been a part of the team’s decision-making process for some time, but the announcement the former Timbers midfielder has received a new, elevated title might cause some to wonder where, within the team, others’ jobs end and his responsibilities begin.
“Each club is unique and each club is different …,” Grabavoy explained, when asked about the lines. “For me, a big part of it is, when we sit down and try to look at the roster construction – not just short-term, but long-term – we sit down and identify positional profiles that would interest the club. That’s really where the scouting process and player acquisition process begins.”
That’s where Grabavoy starts carrying the load on the player acquisition side. Internally, though, the long-time Real Salt Lake player will play a major part in developing talent.
“The club is vertically integrated in a special way between the first team and the second team,” Wilkinson said. “That has to extend beyond the second team and into every academy team.
“To have Ned follow the process of the players – and to make sure that the same processes and protocols are followed with the first team and the second team and are adhered to at every level within the club – puts us in a better position to sustain success.”
With players coming in from the outside, Grabavoy makes sure they fit the vision. And in the procedures he puts in place internally, he’ll make sure the young, potential Homegrown talents in the Academy system develop in the Timbers’ vision.
“The most important thing, for me,” he said, “is that there was a strong process that was in place before I came to Portland. We were able to add additional staff, and we’ve been able to build on the foundation that was here originally.”
As the club “[makes] a big investment” in development, he notes, Portland will build on the aspects that have been worked – aspects he’s been a part of since hanging up his boots two years ago.
“We need to continue to do [build on the foundation] to be successful,” he feels, “and I think we have the right people do that.”
2. “We are looking to strengthen at three to four positions.”
No team in MLS that can afford to tread water, whether you’re on the cusp of contention or at the top of the standings. Every year, more talent comes into the league, projecting the circuit’s next champion as, likely, the best team the competition’s ever seen. Come the offseason, everybody has a chance to keep up.
The depth and assets Portland acquired from trading talents like Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi has helped stock a deep depth chart, but according to Wilkinson, there’s still work to do. And that work means bringing in players capable of competing for starting spots.
“We are looking to strengthen the group …,” he said, plainly, when asked about what positions the team will target. “We are looking to strengthen in three to four positions, and that does provide more competition for places.”
Any avid fan can sketch out a depth chart to see where the Timbers have needs, but there is a quantity-versus-quality element to each of the team’s 11 prospective starting spots. Portland is two to three players deep at every position, Wilkinson explained, but in describing what the organization’s objectives were, he used other terminology that deserves focus: “starting-caliber players,” he said, while also noting how, socially, each player has to fit within the culture.
“Ned meets with every single player that’s a prospect coming into the club,” he explained, alluding to the responsibility each player has in properly representing the community and club. “They go through several different rounds of interviews, with every single person involved in the club. And, again, there is an emphasis put on [cultural fit].”
Savarese also took time to emphasize how, once a player arrives, they have to meet the social expectations of the group.
“When they come in, right after, if they don’t stay in line, then we reinforce that, as well,” Savarese said. “It’s not only about just before they coming (or) during the time that they come, but it’s also while they’re here. That’s very important, for this club.”
It’s not just that the team wants “three to four” starting-caliber options. They have to be talents that fit the culture, and while that might make Grabavoy’s job harder, it’s something which will remain “a mandatory part,” in Wilkinson’s words, “of the scouting process.”
3. A new Designated Player en route?
“When we start to look at the DP slot,” Wilkinson said, eschewing the word “if,” “we have that becoming available. If we were to move Lucas Melano into a TAM spot – which would happen, should we sign a DP – then we’re able to strengthen the group again.
“What I would say is we have several ways we can use that DP slot.”
That the Timbers can free up a Designated Player spot has been in the MLS ether since Melano was brought back last summer. Said ether, though, has held Portland likely to target an attacking player with that scarce resource, something which makes sense when you consider the Timbers’ current forward depth chart (Jeremy Ebobisse, Melano, Foster Langsdorf) has a combined 14 all-time regular-season MLS goals.
“I think it’s important to continue working with those players but also strengthen the group, as a whole,” Wilkinson said. “[Forward] may be one of the positions that we’re contemplating adding somebody.”
“May be,” though, is a qualifier to keep in mind, even if there is a lot of reason to think forward is a primary concern. With the depth in Portland’s ranks, the team need not focus on one place with their DP concerns. If an opportunity presents itself at another position, the team can afford to bet on internal development with its forwards, according to Wilkinson, while pursuing that option.
“Relative to the forward position, that may be an area that we need to get better in, but it’s splitting hairs when you say ‘you’ve scored a number of goals, (so) yes, we need to get better in that position,’” he says.
“That (improvement) can also be in the development of the players that are in that position. I think you saw a better Lucas Melano that, should he have had a full preseason, likely would have and could have contributed more.”
A final note of caution: When you have a resource like a DP spot, Wilkinson says, and a long-term need on the roster, you can’t make a mistake. As competitive as Major League Soccer’s become, sometimes, it’s better to be patient than bank on a short-term solution.
“There are several other teams in MLS that have spent 18 months trying to acquire certain positions,” he recalled, “and it’s not a position you want to get wrong. It’s a position you want to make sure that you get right, and it’s worthwhile taking that little bit of extra time.”
Whether it’s this winter, before the season’s first game, or for the summer, Portland is carving out space for a Designated Player on their depth chart. When, exactly, that player arrives, Wilkinson’s not going to rush it.
4. With Powell, it already hurts.
Alvas Powell is still a Portland Timbers player. There have been no MLS trade forms signed, Wilkinson reminded the media on Thursday, and although the both the club and player have prepared for the realities of an MLS offseason, there is still a chance Powell, who arrived in Portland as an 18-year-old, will be here come July, when he turns 25.
How much of a chance, though?
“While the likelihood of him being back in Portland next year is slim to none,” Wilkinson said, “there is no trade finalized.”
Earlier that day, Powell had tweeted regrets that his playing career was about to take him beyond Portland, a sentiment he later deleted. But Wilkinson confirmed that he and Savarese had addressed the possibility with Powell, something the team president highlighted as one of the most difficult moments of his front-office tenure.
“Gio and I sat down with Alvas this week,” he detailed, “and we discussed the likelihood of Alvas not coming back to the Portland Timbers.
“It was a very emotional meeting. It was very upsetting. I think everyone walked away from it realizing how special Alvas is, as a person, and how much he means to the group and the locker room. It’s probably one of the hardest meetings I’ve ever had to be a part of.”
The Timbers compete in a salary-cap league. There is a limit on the number of players that can be under contract, at any time. For a player like Powell, those contracts tend to grow, in wages, as players improve and improve, so much so that, at some point, difficult decisions have to be made. Those difficult decisions are a significant part of Wilkinson’s job.
The real life implications, though, never get easier. Over his six years with the Timbers, Powell has gone from a shy teenager challenged with adapting to his first time away from home to a player whose personality became a source of joy for all in Portland’s locker room. The grace with which he handed the position battle he, midway through the season, found himself in reflected the pride he derived from the game and his teammates. He’d lost playing time, but in the people around him, he hadn’t lost what was most important.
And perhaps Powell will still be in Portland next season. If not, he will remain a favorite. A favorite of his teammates. A favorite of the fans. And, beyond the oft-harsh realities of the MLS world, a favorite of the club.
5. 2018 provides a foundation to build on
All season, Savarese demurred from questions about the arc of his first Major League Soccer campaign. Perspective, he would say (in different words), was for the offseason, not when you’re trying to maximize the moment.
As of MLS Cup Saturday, that moment passed. And Savarese fulfilled his promise.
“As I said all along, I never was going to speak during the season until I could go back and reflect,” he said, both laughing and remembering.
“I’m just very proud of the work of everybody: the staff, the players, the organization. It’s been a great year in regards to the work that everybody put in. We had different moments. You have to go back to the beginning, the first two matches, which we struggled. We felt that any moment, we were going to find a win.
“We went through those 15 matches (unbeaten, from spring to summer) and, at the end, made a run for the playoffs. (We) got to a final; unfortunately, couldn’t lift an [MLS Cup] trophy at the end. But when you reflect, there was so much that happened during the season. I think the best part is how together everybody got, to a point where we all believed we could get all the way to where we got to.”
It goes back to culture. Any time a position as important as head coach changes, a small amount of a team’s culture could change with it. When Portland had the opportunity to bring in Savarese, though, the club also had a chance to emphasize what, to them, was most important.
“United” is a word Wilkinson used. “Together” was one of Savarese’s. From a lot of sports teams, the terms sound like clichés, but in the Timbers’ 2018 results – and the way the team solidified in the fall, climbed to an MLS Cup final – people like Wilkinson and Savarese have room to talk. Other organizations might want a good culture, but in the view on the decision makers at Providence Park, the Timbers already have one.
That, as much as any player in the team, provides a foundation for 2019, and over the next two months, Savarese and his staff will decide how to use those building blocks.
“In sitting down in the office, yesterday, with the coaching staff,” he said, about the path to next season, “we’re going about what we did last year to try and [evaluate] … But now that we have the group, what can we change? What can we do a little bit different? What can we use to our advantage, with the experience that we had during the year with our group?”
Just as with player acquisition and the talent base within MLS, the bar never stays the same. Each season, the challenges are more pronounced. Come 2019, Savarese will need to embrace what can work next season and, quickly, decide what new year will have in store.