Our third of eight checks on the Timbers and Thorns depth charts finds us in MLS, taking inventory of a place where Portland men’s team has already seen a number of significant departures this offseason. Here is the current state of the Timbers’ defense corps:
No Claude Dielna. No Modou Jadama. No Zarek Valentin. The Portland Timbers have already made a move to replace one of those players, announcing the signing of center back Dario Zuparic from Croatia’s HNK Rijeka, but the sure number of early-offseason departures is a little eye opening. Two of them were expected. One was not.
Valentin’s loss hurts immediately off the field. When the team opens preseason camp in January, that pain’s going to be felt on. Though not a starter at year’s end, Valentin provided solid cover at both fullback positions, could fill in at center back in an emergency, and had the technical quality to pinch into midfield when the team was occupying the opponent’s defensive third. A lot of insurance and versatility were built into his skillset, and so often over the last two years, his ability to be an on-field coach meant he couldn’t be taken off the field.
In terms of the depth chart, though, the Timbers still look decent at both fullback positions. On the left, Jorge Villafaña is set to return for his fourth full season in Portland, his five assists last year placing him third on the team. He should be pushed for time, though, by Marco Farfan, a player who was set to win minutes before a summer knee injury derailed his ascent. Having just turned 21, Farfan’s ready to compete with Villafaña for the starting job.
The story on the right side of the line is different. Over his first year in MLS, Jorge Moreria was one of the most impactful right backs in the league. Whether you consider that descriptor the same as “one of the best right backs in the league” probably depends on your fullback preferences. In targeting Moreira last offseason, Portland sought a player who could change the game in the opposition’s final third. There’s no question Moreira did that in 2019.
At the moment, Bill Tuiloma is the name behind Moreira’s at right back, though it’s unclear how long that will be the case. In his end-of-season press conference, team president Gavin Wilkinson said Portland was close to adding a “young right back,” though he also made clear the importance of securing the team’s starter, currently on loan from River Plate, for the long term.
“(There’s) the formality of still completing some of the paperwork and the transfer agreement, but by and large, that agreement is done,” Wilkinson explained about the impending fullback arrival before making clear the state of the right-back depth chart. “Moreira is a player that will continue to grow in this league, and that’s a player who will be with us for at least another six months. We’re looking at a solution to keep him here for several more years.”
In the middle of their defense, the Timbers also have one locked in starter, making the place to the left of Larrys Mabiala the back line’s biggest question mark. Though the 32-year-old was limited to 22 games last season, he’d been an almost automatic inclusion over the previous year-plus, making 49 starts between the regular season and playoffs. The Timbers believe Mabiala is one of the best central defenders in MLS, and if he performs anywhere close to that evaluation in 2020, his increased minutes could have a major impact on Portland’s goals allowed totals.
Portland should expect similar improvement at their other center-back position, albeit for different reasons. In the way last year’s roster was constructed, the Timbers gave Cascante and Tuiloma a chance to win the starting spot next to Mabiala. Over the course of the year, each won time in that role, but for both, 2019 was their first time consistently starting in MLS. Neither are young enough to still be considered prospects, but at 26 (Cascante) and 24 years old (Tuiloma), and with less than 6,000 combined MLS minutes, both could be short of their finished products. As with more minutes from Mabiala at right-center back, more experience for Cascante and Tuiloma could lead to fewer goals allowed.
Zuparic, in some ways, is a hedge against their stalls. In other ways, he’s intended to be somebody who can push Cascante and Tuiloma to new heights, as well give Giovanni Savarese and his staff another viable option. With experience in Italy’s Serie A, UEFA’s Champions League and Europa League, as well as a large body of work at Croatia’s top level, Zuparic isn’t being brought in for mere insurance. He very well could be starting come March, though such expectations would be best to hold off until he’s actually in green and gold.
Regardless, the added depth will be important. Just as injuries, absences and suspensions meant the Timbers needed four center backs last year, they’re likely to need the same depth in 2020. Dielna ended up making 12 regular-season starts, after all. Who, exactly, ends up assuming Dielna’s role will come down to how the competition around Zuparic resolves.
On paper, even with their departures, the Timbers’ defense looks stronger than it did at this point last season, when Moreira’s arrival was still two months away and a player of Zuparic’s profile was unlikely to arrive. If the right-back signing turns out to be impactful, and players like Cascante, Farfan and Tuiloma continue to improve, Portland’s back line could even be stronger than it was a year ago.
But that’s how life is supposed to be in MLS. Teams are supposed to keep improving. They have to keep up with the league’s improving level. At the back, the question shouldn’t be whether Portland’s improved. It should be whether that improvement will be enough to help push the team back near the top of the conference.