Six Degrees: 2017 Season Preview

My God, is this real? Is C.I. really doing a season preview?

Yes. As we enter my fifth season writing this Six Degrees column for Slide Rule Pass, I’m doing my first-ever out-of-season column. Crazy, right?

What can I say? The team’s got me excited. They’re making me want to write words.

So let’s do it. Let’s see if I can shoehorn my thoughts and hopes and worries and bad jokes into six semi-coherent sections.

1) The off season.

2016 was a frustrating season, filled with injuries, woeful road form, injuries, a lack of goals from anyone not named Adi or Valeri, injuries, an aging roster, injuries, a final week that made fans want to set themselves on fire, and of course, injuries.

What has the team done in the off season to fix these problems?

As far as the injuries go, I don’t know what can be done about that. Replace the medical staff? Hire a new trainer? Light some candles and pray?1 I genuinely have no idea and won’t pretend otherwise.

Also mystifying is last year’s road form, and I doubt that’s something that can be fixed with off season moves. Because I don’t think it originates on the field, but in the team’s collective mind. A road win early in 2017 might fix the entire problem. But if we’re still road-winless in June or July? Call in the psychologists, because this team will be in a bad mental place. As will I.

The aging roster, that’s something that can be fixed in the off season. Step one: get Jack Jewsbury, Nat Borchers, and Ned Grabavoy2 to retire. Step two: sign a bunch of T2 youngsters to first team contracts, including 18-year old Marco Farfan, the first player to make it all the way from the Timbers Academy to the first team. Will any of these new guys actually play? Caleb Porter has a bad history when it comes to playing the kids, but at least they’re on the roster, right? At least they’ll be at practice every day. And who knows, if there’s a blowout win or a short week or – heaven forbid – an injury, maybe they’ll get some meaningful minutes.

Finding goals from people not named Adi and Valeri? That’s something the team definitely addressed in the off season, but we’ll get into that later in the column

For now, just know that it’s been an active off season. Some of our 2016 problems have been addressed, some of them may have been addressed, and some of them can’t be addressed until we’re actually out there playing.

Speaking of playing, the Timbers have already had a few preseason “games.” I put quotation marks around that because, let’s be honest, they’re barely games at all. The players are out of shape, they’re still getting to know each other, there are no substitution limits, and there’s no real pressure to win. For these and a thousand other reasons, you’d be a fool to read too much into preseason games.

But of course, sometimes it’s fun to be a fool. So, let’s do it, eh? Let’s foolishly make some preliminary judgments based on glorified scrimmages that mean pretty much nothing.

2) The defense.

Portland’s defense is a case of good news/bad news.

The good news? One, Jake Gleeson‘s solid in goal and he’s got good depth behind him. Two, it looks like the fullbacks are gonna crush it this year.

Last season, Vytautus Andriuskevicius3 and Alvas Powell combined for one assist. This preseason, they have three. They’ve been coming forward like crazy, working the give-and-go with the wingers, and sending in some very dangerous crosses. All this is good.

Will this attacking mentality leave us exposed in the back? Perhaps. But if Vytas and Alvas can take turns going forward and staying back, that should help. Another thing that will help? The midfield. But more on that in a second.

The bad news regarding the defense? The center backs are a complete mystery. Their strengths, their weaknesses, hell, even their names are a mystery. Liam Ridgewell is pretty much a sure thing to start on the left. Yes, I’ll agree that his form fell a bit in 2016, but that may partially be because of who started next to him. Wait… who did start next to him? I seem to remember about seven or eight guys bumbling around over there. Could we please get some continuity next to Ridgy?

No. Apparently that is not something we can do. Ridgewell’s running mate was going to be young Nigerian international Gbenga Arokoyo, but since this is Portland, where torn ligaments are as common as food carts, his season ended during the first week of practice. Good times, good times…

So who will be starting next to Ridgy? No one has any idea. Maybe converted defensive midfielder Lawrence Olum. Maybe the very young, very large, and very untested Rennico Clarke. Maybe as-of-late-February-still-playing-in-Costa-Rica veteran Roy Miller. Maybe I-think-at-this-point-he’s-played-literally-every-position-on-the-field Zarek Valentin. Or maybe the unknown high profile center back who the team insists it’s signing but is still unknown two weeks before the season starts.4

In other words, the center back pairing of 2017 could be a repeat of the center back pairing of 2016: Ridgy and Who The Fuck Knows.

3) The midfield.

But there are two reasons we maybe shouldn’t worry too much about our center backs, and those two reasons are named Diego Chara and David Guzman.

We all know Diego Chara, of course. He’s short, he’s hard, he’s got a yellow card, aaaaaaaand he’s a heat-seeking missile powered by weapons-grade plutonium. If you’re an opposing player with the ball in the midfield, and you don’t see Diego Chara, be afraid. Be very afraid. Because in about two seconds, you’re going to be picking yourself up off the ground, wondering what the hell just happened.

If you’re new to the Timbers and haven’t picked a favorite player yet, you should seriously consider Chara. He’s wonderful. He puts out fires left and right, and does it all with a smile that lights up the stadium. Also, there’s this.

As great as Chara has been in the past, it’s possible he’s going to be even better this year, as he’s got a new running mate: David Guzman. Poached from Saprissa – a.k.a. the Costa Rican club that bounced us out of the CONCACAF Champions League – Guzman will be setting up next to Chara in the central defensive midfield. We’ve only seen him play five games so far, and all of them were preseason games with preseason rules and preseason expectations, so clearly we shouldn’t put too much weight on them. That being said… DEAR GOD, GUZMAN LOOKS GOOD.

No, but seriously, he looks so good. He and Chara look like they’ve been playing together for years. Their ability to smoothly switch position – one moving forward, one sitting deep – is utterly seamless. Like Chara, Guzman’s a tireless worker and a completely disruptive ball-winner. And he might be an even better passer than Chara, making quick, smart, precise passes all over the field.

And so I return to my original point: if Chara and Guzman can be this insanely good all season, we may not need our center backs to be all that amazing. Chara and Guzman may combine to act a bit like a third center back. And with three center backs, those wonderful fullbacks I mentioned will have the freedom to move forward and join the attack.

Now, I know I’ve called this degree “The Midfield,” but I’m going to stop with just Chara and Gooz. Because, sure, Diego Valeri‘s officially a midfielder, but it feels much more appropriate to talk about him in…

4) The attack.

Now we get to the real strength of the team. With the four guys we’ve got up front, there’s a chance Portland could have the best offense in the league this year. And who gives a fuck about a sketchy defense when you’re scoring seven goals a game, amiright?

Let’s start with our striker, Fanendo Adi. Having led the team with 16 goals in each of the last two years, there were a lot of people expecting Adi to depart for richer leagues abroad. Fortunately, he’s back, and the way the team’s set up, the big fella might be bagging 20+ goals this year.5 But Adi will help the offense even when he’s not scoring, thanks to a kind of gravitational influence. When he’s in the box, defenders gravitate towards him. And two or three defenders drifting toward Adi’s big 6’4” frame in the center of the box opens a lot of space for his teammates to take advantage of.

Diego Valeri will probably be our second leading scorer, as well as our leading assist man. I predicted 15 and 15 for him last year. He only gave us 14 and 7, the bum. Playing mostly in the center of the pitch, Valeri’s definitely the straw that stirs the Timbers drink. Don’t be surprised, though, to see him constantly shifting from left to right to central. We’ve got three guys this year who I think will be shifting positions almost constantly. Valeri’s the first.

The second is Darlington Nagbe. When needed, he can drive things in the center of the pitch. He’s also played a ton of right winger. This year, though, Coach wants him to focus on the left wing. The hope is that he’ll be able to cut inside and use his favored right foot to shoot on goal. Will Nagbe actually shoot? This remains to be seen. It’s not his nature. But if it’s Coach’s orders? I’m sure Nags can force himself to be selfish. We’ve already seen some very nice shots from him this preseason. Always remember, though: Nagbe’s the type of player who, even when he’s not scoring, is helping the team. He’s one of those players who’s always making the pass before the pass that leads to the goal.

Over on the right wing is our newest Argentine DP, Sebastian Blanco. Our last Argentine DP was Lucas Melano, and we payed a lot of money for his potential. This time is different. Blanco’s not here for potential. He’s here for proven skill. And from what we’ve seen in the preseason, he’s the real deal. He could not look more comfortable out there. Great interplay between him and Alvas Powell, easy shifting from right to central to left, confidence with either foot, and genuine work on the defensive side. For two years, Timbers fans waited for Melano to show us something. We only had to wait about two minutes for Blanco. He’s gonna be a good one.6

5) The bench.

The biggest story of 2016 was injuries. The second biggest story was how our bench wasn’t good enough to carry us through all those injuries. And so the team spent the off season trying to fix that. Trying to get younger, get deeper, get better. Based solely on these meaningless preseason games, I’d say they’ve succeeded.

As far as late game subs go, here are the guys I think we’ll see the most: Darren Mattocks at striker and left winger. Dairon Asprilla at right winger. Victor Arboleda at left or right. Jack Barmby at left, right, or central midfield.

Jack McInerney? I think he’ll be traded. His salary’s a little too high to sit on the bench. Better to give his occasional minutes to rookie Jeremy Ebobisse.7

As far as the rest of the bench goes, we’ll probably only see them in case of injury. In 2016, that meant Every Fucking Game. Hopefully, in 2017, it means Never.

I’ve recently learned how to make depth charts that are so official-looking they could fool someone into thinking I actually know what I’m talking about. Which, of course, I don’t.

Impressive-looking graphic, eh? Makes me look like a total baller.  Aww, yeah.

6) The predictions.

Making just one prediction seems too easy. And too easy to get wrong. So here are three predictions instead. Three ways 2017 could play out.

Best case scenario: no major injuries. The offense is tremendous. The central defense is protected by Chara and Gooz. We play beautiful, high pressure, high possession soccer and score goals by the bushel. Top 3 all season long. In the running for the Supporter’s Shield. Perform well in the playoffs. Put a second star above the crest.

Worst case scenario: non-stop injuries, just like 2016. The bench handles it better than last year, but our kids get a bit more experience than they’re ready for. The central defense is too weak for Chara and Gooz to protect. The offense scores goals, but not by the bushel, giving us a goal differential near zero. We hover around the red line all year. We miss the playoffs by the thinnest of margins. We fire the entire medical staff.

Somewhere in between scenario: a few injuries, but nothing insane like 2016. The bench is okay, not great. The kids get some experience, but not too much. The central defense isn’t great, but Chara and Gooz do just enough to make them average. Our offense isn’t the stuff of wet dreams, but it’s solidly above average. We spend the season bouncing between 2nd and 5th in the West. We hope to get hot in the playoffs. We bid Adi a fond farewell as he jets off to England or Spain or wherever, a trail of thousand dollar bills in his wake.

Clearly, the third option is a very reasonable scenario, and one I think we could all live with.

But since it’s pre-season, why have reasonable expectations? We’ve got a week or so until Opening Day. Let’s be unreasonable. The team looks fucking great, amiright? We’re gonna steamroll the league, amiright? Adi’s not scoring 20 goals, he’s scoring 30! We’re winning every game 7-3! We’re not winning the Cup with zero shots on goal, we’re winning it with 47 shots on goal, amiright? It’s an odd-numbered year and that means one thing: the Portland Timbers are loaded for bear. Get your scarves, get your two-sticks, get your green, get your gold. The Timbers are going the set the league on fire. This is our year.

And that is my official prediction. At least for the next week or so.

  1. Insert dumb candle joke here. Did you know you can read these dumb joke footnotes without actually clicking on them? Just float your cursor over the number and my dumb joke will magically appear. It’s easy and fun! Fun, but not always funny. 

  2. combined age: 173 

  3. you’re damn right I spelled it correctly on the first try. I’m in mid-season form, baby! 

  4. alas, the team won’t be signing Cameroonian center back Yaya Banana, which I think we can all agree is the first great tragedy of 2017. 

  5. at which point I expect some European club to offer us a bag of money so large it blacks out the sun 

  6. also, am I wrong, or is Blanco now the best-looking guy on the team? I kind of want his nickname to be Sgt. Handsome. 

  7. whose last name frustrates me. Ee-bo-BEE-say? Eh-BO-bisay? I may hit him up on Twitter just to ask about this.