PORTLAND, Ore. – It was four months ago, when the Portland Timbers were eliminated from the 2019 Major League Soccer playoffs, that the subject began to emerge. Then, after a season that started with 12 road games – that saw a prominent player leave the team before the last game and other controversies surfaced in the news – the next year’s theme was already understandable. Normalcy, the team’s decision makers implied in their postseason interviews, would be one of the virtues of the coming 2020 season.
Even amid that goal, it was strange how familiar Costa Rica felt. It is a different country, after all; one which, having six countries between it and the United States, shares few cultural similarities with the Timbers’ home. The country’s capital, San José, is also four thousand miles and two time zones away from Portland. For so many reasons, the Timbers’ preseason destination could have felt like a different world, yet staying in the same hotel, using the same facilities and largely maintaining the same schedule they had during their first Costa Rica preseason, the year before, the team’s excursion fit nicely into their 2020 target. It felt very normal.
“We have some friends, here, in Costa Rica,” midfielder Diego Valeri admitted when, two weeks ago, he was asked about the team’s arrival in Costa Rica. “[We have] a good facility. It’s warmer than Portland. It’s good people. We can rest well and be focused on this time to prepare the team.”
Gracias Costa Rica 🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/b0uSbXoXgF— Diego Valeri (@DiegoDv8) February 9, 2020
They’re all things you’d expect a player to say about a club’s preseason home. Why go somewhere that’s lacking? That players would have to bite their tongues about, when speaking to the media? What’s missing from Valeri’s comments, though, is any sense of newness, or something special.
The first time Portland was in San José, it felt unique. The return visit just felt normal.
“We’re preparing for three friendly games,” Sebastián Blanco said, when asked the same question. His focus never dwelled on the location, or any expected elements of Costa Rica. Instead, Blanco focused on the preparation.
“It’s important for us,” he continued. “We need the friendly games: three now; three at home after, and we’re finished [in Costa Rica]. In one month, we start to play [league games] again.”
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In head coach Giovanni Savarese's first year with the Timbers, 2018, the team spent four weeks in Arizona broken up over two fortnights, with a break in Portland in between. By that time in the club’s history, Tucson had become the team's customary preseason home. In 2019, the Timbers returned to Arizona once more, but only after two weeks in the Costa Rican capital.
Now into week four their preseason, Portland’s 2020 preparations feel remarkable for what’s missing rather than what it’s involved.
“We have everything that we need to do our preseason, for this period of time ...,” Savarese said of Portland’s San José time. “The fact, also, that we only have to be away these two weeks and not more time – and then 12 games away – makes it a lot more fun and enjoyable, for sure.”
It also adds to the goal set four months before: normalcy. All nine of the team’s leaders in minutes played in 2019 return to the team this season (the number was seven last preseason). Of the 20 most-used players during last year’s regular season (in terms of minutes played) who finished 2019 with the team, 18 are back with the Timbers this year. Zarek Valentin is now in Houston and Claude Dielna has moved on, but for the most part, Portland’s main components have returned.
The same thing can be said on the sidelines, where Savarese’s coaching staff returns in full. A few faces have changed within the athletic performance and training staff, but even there, the moves have been exceptions, with the team’s continuity extending to even its chef, nutritionist and barber. Just as the sites around preseason were familiar and normal, so too were the faces within the team, as well within the staff around it.
There were some obvious exceptions. For new winger Yimmi Chara, the camp in Costa Rica was a first. Same for Dario Zuparic, the team’s new central defender, and for Felipe Mora and Jarek Niezgoda, the reinforcements Portland’s brought in at forward. For them, two weeks in insolation, away from the distractions of new homes, served the normal preseason purpose.
“A different environment allows you to be in a situation where you have to figure things out, you have to spend more time with the players,” Savarese explained. “You get to know some of the teammates, some of the new guys that are here now, as well. And it’s that moment where you share a lot of things together.”
That, though, is part of a preseason’s normal: a time away from everything to forge the team dynamic. Then, it’s back into the routine. Back to the training center. Back to a home field. Back into a dynamic which, with a lack of turnover, gives the team something known to grow on.
At least, that’s the theory. Portland didn’t need to rebuild, the team’s offseason moves hint. They just needed to regroup. Whether that theory proves correct, the team’s put themselves in a position to fairly test it. Preseason, to this point, has gone as planned; at least, as it concerns getting back to what’s predictable.
The Timbers’ targeting signings were part of that picture, and in a different way, so was their return to Costa Rica. Everything about their time abroad hinted at a return to normal.