Reunions, returns highlight first day of Portland Timbers' preseason

BEAVERTON, Ore. – The Portland Timbers’ 2019 activities picked up where 2018’s ended: in the rain. Only whereas the last time the team played together, they were doing so while shielded from a wet Atlanta night, Portland’s defense of their Western Conference crown began amid a downpour, on an immaculately prepared adidas Timbers Training Center pitch, with Northwest Oregon’s skies reminding 27 trainees of the realities of MLS’ calendar.

“It’s exciting to get back in the locker room and see everybody again,” Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella said, his hair still wet after the day’s 90-minute session. “You get that preseason buzz back, that preseason energy back. It’s good. Everyone was having fun the first day.”

Fun was a word we frequently heard last year, when head coach Giovanni Savarese and his staff, in their first year with the team, consciously broke up the long Tucson, Arizona, sessions with drills that would bring levity to the group. It’s a custom that persisted throughout the 2018 season, though during the first practice of 2019, the Timbers were focused more on tempo than entertainment.

Still, despite putting in more work than you might usually see on day one, the Timbers’ players left the field engaged, feeling positive about their year’s first effort.

“I think this [session] was more enjoyable,” midfielder Diego Valeri said, when asked to compare 2019’s first session with 2018’s. “We enjoyed this a little bit better because it was in Portland. We all enjoyed it much better.”

Part of that joy came from the reunions, with players like Bill Tuiloma (New Zealand) and Sebastián Blanco (Argentina) returning from homes halfway across the world. Yet more joy was found in the return of familiar faces, like midfielder Eryk Williamson’s as he returns from his loan in Portugal, as well as returns to health, with forward Foster Langsdorf back on the field after late-season knee surgery.

There we some surprise faces in the group, with 2018 Timbers Roy Miller and Lawrence Olum training despite not being officially under contract. Part of the team’s 2019 MLS SuperDraft class was in attendance, too, as was Carlos Anguiano, an academy product who made nine appearances last year in USL play with Timbers 2. Those who endured the Beaverton showers also got a first glimpse at defender Claude Dielna, whose trade from the New England Revolution was finalized less than a week ago.

“I went around and I asked [the new arrivals], ‘How do you feel?’” Savarese said. “They were excited about being part of the team, starting practice.”

They may have been excited, too, to get a Timbers tradition out of the way, one that sees new arrivals (and, occasionally at practice, late arrivals) put through a tunnel of lined up players, each ready to playfully slap teammates on the backs and shoulders as a welcome to the club.

“Now, we were able to do the tunnel from the beginning, right away,” Savarese said, alluding to last preseason, when so many players and coaches were new to each other. “It was great, also, for the (new) players. Let’s make sure we do it, right away. Let’s welcome them this way. It was good.”

But there were also some notable absences, with new goalkeeper signing Aljaž Ivačič and 2018 T2 standout Renzo Zambrano set to report at a later date. Three players were missing due to international commitments, too, with the United States’ Jeremy Ebobisse and Costa Ricans David Guzmán and Marvin Loría preparing with their countries ahead of a potential meeting on Feb. 2 (12:30pm PT | FOX, UniMás).

And, for those who have been around the club for years, it was worth a moment’s reflection to remember others who won’t feature in Timbers preseason: Alvas Powell, who was traded to FC Cincinnati last month; Liam Ridgewell, who recently parted ways with the club; and Jake Gleeson, a Timber from the pre-MLS era whose contract expired at the end of last season. In their absences, the realities of professional sports loomed.

“It’s always difficult to lose some players,” Savarese said, when asked about his team’s current roster. “We were very content with everybody on the roster, last year. But we have to move forward, and moving forward, we’ve brought in some new players. We’re very content with the way things are shaping up, right now.”

Over the next two weeks, that shape will become clearer, giving the team more structure when they board a plane to Costa Rica for the preseason’s next stage. Two weeks after that, it’s back to Tucson, where two more weeks’ training will feed Portland into the 2019 campaign. Preseason will be just that short.

“Everyone is fighting for their position from day one,” Savarese said, a reminder of how his team, over the next six weeks, will begin to form. “And, I think for a first practice, it was great.”

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