BEAVERTON, Ore. – The Portland Timbers’ preseason finale against the New England Revolution on Saturday (5pm PT, Timbers.com, TICKETS) should be the team’s most intense match of the month – the culmination of a six-game stretch which, since February 1, has tried to prepare the team for its 10th Major League Soccer season. It should also be Timbers fans’ second chance to look at three new potential starters, with all of winger Yimmi Chara, forward Felipe Mora and defender Dario Zuparic looking poised to start March 1’s season opener against Minnesota United FC (4:30pm PT, FS1, TICKETS).
With eight days to go until that match, the status of head coach Giovanni Savarese’s starting XI could still change, but if the pattern of the team’s first five games is any indication, the offseason acquisitions look set to walk out with the other starters for their competitive Providence Park debut. Mora and Zuparic have each started four of the team’s five preseason games, benched only for Wednesday’s loss to Minnesota, when none of Portland’s starters were in uniform. Chara has started one fewer game, but the extra match he missed was for fitness reasons. The 28-year-old is still building to his full self.
“Hopefully we can get him to be as fit as he can ...,” Savarese said last week, on his team’s return from two weeks in Costa Rica, where Chara missed the second game of a three-match stretch. “Now, he’s a little bit behind, but little by little, he’s going to get to that fitness level that’s going to make him show the full talent that he has.”
The process of getting Chara caught up was evident at the start of training camp, when the new Designated Player was one of a group of players working on the side, away from the rest of the team. Come camp’s second week, Chara was training with the rest of the squad, giving his new teammates their first glimpse of what he can provide from the right wing.
“He’s given us exactly what we expected,” Savarese said, describing what he’d seen from Chara. “Crafty, quick, can pull amazing things out of something difficult and make it simple. Just a big engine that gives us a lot of solutions. He’s done really well since he arrived.”
Savarese struck similar notes when asked about Mora and Zuparic, too – not surprising given all three have assumed early roles in the starting lineup. In the qualities Savarese sees in each, though, there is something new to learn. After a month coaching each, the Timbers’ coach has a more specific idea of what’s been added to his squad.
“Every player is bringing something a little bit different, but good to the team,” he explained when asked about the players, with the question leading him toward Felipe Mora. “Felipe is exactly what we expected … he’s a quiet, humble worker. He brings qualities that will help the team be better, even sometimes as a lone striker. Now we know he can play with another striker, or he can play by himself.
“[On tape,] he seemed a little bit smaller, but he’s a little taller than I expected, which is a good thing. Overall, he’s a quality player. He’s been playing in a competitive league. He’s also been in different leagues and done well. We’re very excited about him.”
Among the new starters the Timbers may have on March 1, the smoothest integration may be that of Dario Zuparic. Signed from the Croatian first division in late fall, and with only four years experience beyond his domestic league, the 27-year-old’s transition to Major League Soccer came with doubts, with the difference in levels between the Prva HNL and MLS unclear. From preseason training’s earliest moments, though, Zuparic has provided a level of composure to the back line that’s been missing since last offseason’s departure of Liam Ridgewell.
“I told Dario, ‘you didn’t speak that English when I saw you in Croatia,’” Savarese said. “‘Now, you’re a lot more fluent.’
“He’s doing really well. I speak Italian with him, as well. He has a lot of humbleness in his approach. He is hard working, tactically very smart. He’s done really well, and the guys respect him very much.”
That respect is one of the reasons why Zuparic seems to have locked down a starting job so early. For different reasons, Chara has to, and while Mora will likely compete with another of the team’s offseason acquisitions, Jarek Niezgoda, when the Polish striker returns to health (as well as the team’s incumbent striker, Jeremy Ebobisse), the preseason trend hints the Chilean will be in next Sunday’s lineup.
How long that lasts past March 1 may change after March 1. For now, though, three of the Timbers’ offseason signings look set to get their chance, ready to provide early returns on the team’s winter decisions.