It’s Simple: Portland Needs Stable Strikers

Changes after tough 2014 start leads to Timbers’ most stable position
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, December 05, 2014

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

For most of the 2014 MLS season, the Portland Timbers’ forwards were a source of bewilderment and frustration.

But in 2015, the same group could be the most stable part of the lineup. Or, at least the most predictable.

When 2014 began, the biggest question was who would play alongside Darlington Nagbe up front in Caleb Porter’s system, especially with the departure of Ryan Johnson. Would it be Maxi Urruti, whom Portland traded Bright Dike and a first round SuperDraft pick to Toronto for? What about Gastón Fernández, newly signed from Estudiantes in Argentina’s Primera División? Could Frédéric Piquionne handle the load at 35?

Not only did Portland have to deal with the departure of Johnson, who scored 9 times for the Timbers in MLS play, but also the promising youngster Jose Valencia, as he was sent on loan to Olimpo in Argentina for the 2014 season.

At first, it looked like Fernández would be getting the bulk of minutes, especially as he scored the two goals that saved 1-1 home draws against Philadelphia and Chicago to start the season. But soon he was sharing time with Urruti, and by the end of the season Fernández wasn’t even plating as a striker, but as an attacking midfielder backing up Diego Valeri. That’s where La Gata is expected to start the season, starting until Valeri returns from an ACL injury in June (at the earliest).

Then Piquionne had a falling out with the Timbers staff, and he suddenly was no longer in Portland’s plans. He was released in May, and now plays in Ligue 2 in France.

Urruti was steadily gaining more playing time, and for a time it looked like he would be starting more. But he was wildly inconsistent, scoring crucial goals one game and missing easy chances the next. Sometimes, those would happen in the same match, so while Urruti was among Portland’s goal scoring leaders all season, it always seemed like he could have scored numerous more goals.

But the most frustrating, and bewildering, player up front was Nagbe. His passing had improved greatly, leading the team in assists for most of the season. But he couldn’t score in MLS, no matter how great of an opportunity. He scored in the US Open Cup loss to Seattle, but no matter what he did, an MLS goal eluded him until the final match of the season at FC Dallas.

By midseason, things were changing, mainly because of one man. That man was Fanendo Adi, who came to Portland from FC Copenhagen on loan in May. His impact was immediate, scoring twice at Chivas USA on May 28 in his first start and just his third match for the Timbers. Two weeks later, he scored twice at Real Salt Lake, giving Portland its first win over RSL in over three years. By the end of June, Portland had bought his contract from Copenhagen and given Adi a Designated Player deal.

While the middle of the season was truly up and down, a pattern was starting to develop among the forwards. Porter would give Adi the start in MLS matches, with Urruti often replacing him after the 70th minute. In US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League games, Urruti started and Adi replaced him late in the second half. A variation of that strategy will likely continue into 2015.

Nagbe will also continue to start, just like he did in 2014. But his role has been tweaked a bit, as he’s become more of a set-up forward and occasionally drifting back behind Rodney Wallace when the Costa Rican pressed in from the wing. But if Nagbe can find his scoring touch again, that will be a huge bonus for the Portland attack.

The wild card in the mix is one with a large amount of talent. Schillo Tshuma spent much of 2014 on loan in USL Pro at Orange County Blues and Arizona United, but his brief appearances for the Timbers in the US Open Cup, the CCL and the preseason gave fans a glimpse of his fantastic speed and ability to control the ball at speed. He’ll likely start 2015 back in USL Pro with Timbers 2, but if there’s an injury or Porter feels like he needs to shake things up, having Tshuma nearby will give him another option as necessary.

The expansion draft might affect the group a bit. Assuming that Portland will protect Adi and Nagbe, they have to decide whether to protect Urruti, as well. Both Fernández and Tshuma could easily be left exposed for Orlando City of New York City FC to take, if they choose. If one is taken next week, then at least one more forward needs to be signed.

If no one ends up with OCSC or NYCFC, then the strikers may be the most stable group on the Timbers going into 2015. Nagbe will start, likely as a second striker, with Adi and Urruti alternating in the forward spot. Fernández will fill in for Valeri until he comes back, and then likely becomes a supersub again. Tshuma will wait his turn.

Portland’s forwards may be inconsistent, but it’s the one position where coaches and fans know what to expect. If Nagbe rediscovers his scoring touch while Adi and Urruti continue to improve, and a bit of consistency develops on goal scoring opportunities, then they will become as much of a strength for the Timbers as midfield.

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