Portland Searches For Answers in the Offseason

The star midfielder’s ACL tear another part of frustrating season for Portland
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, October 31, 2014

Green Logs - a column on the Portland Timbers & the Portland soccer scene

The 2014 season ended on Saturday night for the Portland Timbers, and it’s starting off to be an eventful offseason.

But not in a positive way, which pretty much continues the theme of 2014 for the club.

Once the Vancouver Whitecaps finished off the Colorado Rapids 1-0 and ended the Timbers’ playoff hopes, despite Portland’s win at FC Dallas, it seemed like the long, strange trip that was the MLS season was finally over. But what wasn’t known at the time was that the club’s biggest story going into the 2015 season had just begun.

That story is Diego Valeri’s recovery from a torn ACL. He suffered the injury during the first half on Saturday, but finished the half before he was subbed out. Once his injury was revealed by The Oregonian’s Jamie Goldberg on Monday (the Timbers confirmed the injury on Tuesday), it felt like a final hit to what had been a strange and frustrating season.

If there’s a positive to the Valeri news, it is that his injury isn’t as bad as the one that Rodney Wallace suffered at the end of the 2013 playoffs. While the reported timeframe for his recovery being at least five months, that will likely see Valeri miss the start of the season, but an April return is not out of the question.

One other advantage Valeri will have is that because the Timbers missed the playoffs, he’ll get a month’s head start on his recovery. Wallace’s injury was revealed, of course, when Portland took Steve Zakuani in the MLS Re-Entry Draft in December.

Zakuani provided the second major piece of news of the offseason on Wednesday, as he announced his retirement on his website. While he played in 17 matches and became the first Timber to score in the CONCACAF Champions League, injuries continued to limit his playing time. In the end, it was continuing problems with his groin, connected with the horrific broken leg he suffered in 2011 as a member of the Seattle Sounders, which forced him to end his career.

The loss of Zakuani will be minimal for the Timbers. Not having Valeri and captain Will Johnson to start the season will have a much greater impact, especially in a midfield where depth has been tested over the final weeks of the season. While Ben Zemanski has shown he’s ready for more minutes in replacing Johnson and will likely be a starter as the 2015 season arrives, others like Kalif Alhassan and Michael Nanchoff struggled in their chances for minutes.

Filling Valeri’s shoes won’t be as easy as sliding Zemanski into Johnson’s spot, of course. Whether it’s Gastón Fernández, Darlington Nagbe, Rodney Wallace or someone else, filling the crucial attacking midfielder spot that Valeri played so effectively will be vital in helping the Timbers start better in 2015 than they did in 2014.

Much of what the Timbers do in the offseason with their main squad will be focused on making sure the club gets off to a good start in 2015. Caleb Porter admitted on Wednesday that the horrid start of the season, which saw Portland get just 5 points in the first 8 matches, was a huge factor in the Timbers not making the playoffs.

It was in those first 8 matches that the pattern of the season was established. Missed opportunities for goals, a very leaky defense, Donovan Ricketts not able to get back to his 2013 form and cover for that leaky defense and the inability win at home were consistent storylines for the Timbers in that time.

By time the goal scoring was found, Ricketts was getting close to his 2013 form again and the Timbers finally started winning at Providence Park, the margin of error was razor thin. The match at Toronto, where a 2-0 lead became a 3-2 loss in the final 20 minutes, ended up costing Portland a playoff spot. But it was also the only league loss Portland suffered in the final two months of the season, showing how much Portland had to get points in their final 9 games to even be in the position to have even that little amount of wiggle room.

How the Timbers finished the MLS season is what the club can build upon, even with the injuries to Valeri and Johnson. Losing just once in their final 9 games, with every one being critical for the playoff run, is a sign that some aspects were coming together.

With the added distractions of building their new club in USL Pro, protecting players from Orlando City and New York City FC in the MLS Expansion Draft and maybe adding a player from Chivas USA in the coming dispersal draft, it will be a busier offseason than usual for the Portland front office. Add on the usual international scouting trips and looking at players for the MLS SuperDraft (Portland has Colorado’s pick at #5 thanks to last year’s Danny Mwanga trade), and the concept of an “offseason” becomes almost mythical.

The offseason was already going to be busy in Portland. Diego Valeri’s injury just adds another layer, however unwanted, to what Caleb Porter and Gavin Wilkinson have to plan for in 2015.

And there’s lot to plan for. Including making sure 2015 doesn’t start like 2014.

NEXT UP: TBA

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
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