BEAVERTON, Ore. – The moments before Thursday’s training session may have been the preseason’s first point of normalcy.
In the days before, between last week’s physicals and tests, and this week’s initial hours on the field, the excitement of a new season was still defining, overshadowing the gray and dampness of an Oregon January and offering an unseen brightness. Yet after four training sessions and Wednesday’s first, mass availability to the media, the rhythms of life had fully returned. Things didn’t seem so new anymore.
Part of that may be the continuity from season to season. The Diegos, Chara and Valeri, are both here. As is Sebastián Blanco, Larrys Mabiala, and 15 others returning from last year’s team. The number would be even higher if Cristhian Paredes wasn’t on international duty, or Andrés Flores hadn’t hurt his knee while with El Salvador. New faces like Yimmi Chara and Dario Zuparic are here, as are a series of new draft picks, trialists, and talents from the Academy getting an early first-team look. Still, the feel remains the same. The culture around the Timbers is so entrenched, it’s hard for new waves to sustain their ripples.
For Portland, that’s probably a good thing. Though the 2019 season ended with disappointment after a first-round exit in last year’s playoffs, that loss didn’t accompany a need to, in sports’ parlance, blow things up. Quite the opposite. From the weeks following the team’s defeat at Real Salt Lake to the moments the Timbers reassembled last week, the feeling has been consistent, if not beyond doubt. Within the team, there is a feeling that the talent is still there, as is the ceiling for that talent, one that was not only exhibited through an MLS Cup final run in 2018 but through a series of memorable victories in 2019, including road triumphs at 2019 Cup finalists Seattle and Toronto, as well as another victory away at the year’s Supporters’ Shield winners, Los Angeles FC. Beyond the team, though, the bottom lines are more stark. The Timbers’ season ended four wins short of a title.
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“Every time you come into a new season, there are always great expectations,” Blanco told the assembled media on Wednesday, during the team’s season-opening media day at Providence Park. “There is always that [expectation] that you’re going to make it to the playoffs. However, this year, we are going to be a little bit more ambitious. We have a really good group. We’re going to go for something more than just making it to the playoffs.”
That baseline expectation, the postseason, has been in place since the Timbers’ first MLS campaign, even it if wasn’t realized until the club’s third season in the league. From there, the team's alternated postseason life with near-miss disappointment for four years before, beginning in 2017, going on a stretch that continues to this day. Perhaps, in the big picture of the sports’ professional history, making the playoffs three years’ running isn’t a big deal, but it does speak to a new reality: Portland has gotten so used to making the postseason, going out early feels like a disappointment.
“We’re moving forward,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, during Wednesday’s media day. “We made a lot of changes from last season. We continue to look at players. We continue to look at ways to be better for the start of the season, but we’re very excited for the players who are already here…
“All around, there’s a lot of excitement in the locker room. Everybody has been working very well at the beginning of preseason, and we’re looking forward to the start of the season.”
Yimmi Chara is one way the team’s ready to move forward, with jokes around training already transporting the first names of him and his similar-looking older brother, Diego. Zuparic is another targeted addition, with his early presence on and off the field providing a reminder of what the team had lost in early 2019 with the departure of former team captain Liam Ridgewell. The presence of current Academy players like winger Dyson Clapier, forward Tega Ikoba, and goalkeeper Hunter Sulte provided an anchor on the average age of the group, with graduated Academy products Marco Farfan, Blake Bodily, Carlos Anguiano and Gio Calixtro hinting that a pipeline, long awaited by those who track Timbers prospects, may finally be connecting stops.
There are trialists here, too. There always are. The most prominent of them is Chris Duvall, a former New York Red Bulls defender who has since made stops in Montreal, Houston and, at United Soccer League level, Oklahoma City. Portland’s own USL signings are training with the first team, too. Winger Marcus Epps and midfielder Ken Krolicki appear on track to be major parts of T2’s first season in Hillsboro.
During the week’s first training sessions, it all felt new. Remarks before practice from the head coach, Giovanni Savarese, would acknowledge as such. Yet on Thursday, shortly after the parade of players from locker room to field ended with a huddle at the side of the pitch, the message felt normal. A brief explanation of the day’s routine. Some words on the goals, as well as the area of focus. A small acknowledgement of a milestone for one of the team’s staff.
Four days in, preseason feels comfortable. Now, “great expectations” can come fully into focus.