Portland’s Got Problems in the Midfield

Injuries, expansion draft could be catalyst for future signings
by Ray Marcham   |   Thursday, November 27, 2014

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

If there’s an area that needs the least amount of tweaking for the Portland Timbers, it would seem to be the midfield.

But it might be the position where depth is most needed.

Midfield is where the majority of the stars are in Portland. When healthy, the foursome of Diego Valeri, Rodney Wallace, Diego Chara and Will Johnson can match up with any midfield in Major League Soccer. But right now, that’s not a healthy group.

Gastón Fernández finished 2014 as Valeri’s backup, and likely will be a starter as Valeri recovers from an ACL injury if he stays in Portland. Ben Zemanski played well after Johnson suffered a broken leg in Toronto and showed that he deserves more minutes as a starter, even when Johnson returns. Those two showed that the Timbers have two capable reserves, assuming they are still around after the Expansion Draft.

After that, the depth gets thinner. Jack Jewsbury was used as a defensive midfielder during CONCACAF Champions League matches and some regular season games. Kalif Alhassan rarely made appearances in MLS matches after April, being used in CCL and US Open Cup games. Michael Nanchoff was also relegated to USOC and CCL play, making only three MLS appearances in 2014.

While listed as a midfielder in the Timbers’ roster, Jorge Villafaña seems to have earned a starting spot in Portland’s back four. George Fochive and Steven Evans both spent the majority of 2014 on loan to USL Pro champions Sacramento, with only Fochive making a couple of appearances with the Timbers in 2014, once in the USOC and once in the CCL. And, of course, Steve Zakuani has retired, opening up a spot on the roster.

Darlington Nagbe also has spent time in the midfield, especially when Caleb Porter has set up the lineup with either Fanendo Adi or Maxi Urruti as a single striker. But he’s not a true midfielder, and Porter tries to keep him up front as much as possible.

When looking at the position, midfield might become a position that could be greatly affected by the expansion draft. Assuming Valeri, Wallace, Chara, Johnson and Nagbe are all protected, that would leave Fernández and Zemanski exposed. Both Orlando City and New York City FC could easily take either of the two, and that’s a possibility Porter and Gavin Wilkinson both have to prepare for. If one of the two is taken, that puts pressure on the other to produce quickly as a starter until Valeri returns in late spring.

Then there’s the question of who gets released from the team. One would figure that Alhassan is a prime candidate to be let go, and Nanchoff might not stick around, either. Fochive, Portland’s top pick in the 2014 SuperDraft, could be a candidate to play for Timbers 2 to get time in Porter’s system. Evans is likely in the same situation as Fochive, but is likely under a bit more pressure to make the first team as a Homegrown Player.

Of course, there’s the question of whether Portland will go out and sign a midfielder or two as insurance just in case Johnson or Valeri have setbacks in their rehab from injuries. They sign purely for depth, hope to sign a player who becomes a regular in the matchday 18 or invite players to training camp in early 2015 and make them play their way into a contract.

This is a situation where the Timbers could make a pick in the Re-Entry Draft, similar to when they took Zakuani last year as a possible replacement for the then-injured Wallace. But Zakuani didn’t play up to the standards that Porter had hoped he’d reached, and in the end injuries stopped his season early and, as it turned out, ended his playing career. But if there’s someone that another team has released that could fit Porter’s system, the temptation to go back into the Re-Entry Draft could be strong.

Another route that Portland could take is trying to take a midfielder in the 2015 SuperDraft. They have the fifth pick in the first round, received from Colorado in the Danny Mwanga trade, and could easily choose a player who could step into the 18 right away. Whether that player is Washington’s Cristian Roldan, Michigan State’s Fatai Alashe, California’s Seth Casiple or Virginia’s Eric Bird or someone else, whoever is chosen will be expected to make an impact as soon as possible, and that’s different than the expectations that was on Fochive after the 2014 draft.

Midfield is a major strength with the Timbers. But injuries to Valeri and Johnson has tested the depth at the position, and between the expansion draft, the Re-Entry Draft and possible new signings, making sure that that midfield strength doesn’t become a possible weakness has to be among Portland’s priorities.

Because hoping that all will be fine by time the Valeri-Wallace-Chara-Johnson foursome is reunited in late spring isn’t an option.

NEXT UP: January 31 – Portland Timbers vs. Sporting Kansas City, Kino North Stadium, Tucson, Arizona. 8 p.m. EST, TBA.


Washington State
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Portland Timbers
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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.