Retooled Timbers set for Season 3 in MLS

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

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PORTLAND — Almost half the roster has changed, and there is a new coach in charge.

As the Portland Timbers begin their third season in Major League Soccer, it's clear the team has changed direction. After taking a step backward in their second season, the Timbers are rebooting.

More than half of the expected starters for Sunday's season opener are new to the franchise. There is a new team captain — at least on the field.

But general manager Gavin Wilkinson doesn't see this overhaul as starting from scratch.

"It's a natural progression," Wilkinson said of a roster that has changed 13 of its 30 faces since the end of last season. "We could not have put this team together in Year 1."

It's also natural that Caleb Porter, who is bringing an emphasis on possessing the ball and proactive attacking from his respected Akron University program, would bring in players to carry out his vision.

"There's going to be a clear identity," Porter said. "There will be variation from game to game to do what we need to do to win, but there will be a clear identity in this club."

Wilkinson said he and Porter wrote a detailed road map for how the Timbers will become the club they envision. Porter said developing that identity is a process that takes time, and to some extent will always evolve.

"He's a coach who believes that possession-oriented teams win, but it's got to be possession with a purpose. There's more of a focus of getting chances out of the possession," Will Johnson said.

A 26-year-old midfielder who was a significant contributor to Real Salt Lake the past four seasons, Johnson is the team's new on-field captain, with Jack Jewsbury's title shifting to club captain.

Johnson noted that the up-field pressure Porter seeks from his team when opponents win the ball is common around MLS.

"But you have to be able to keep the ball for long stretches of time, otherwise pressing doesn't do you a lot of good," Johnson said. "You'll end up getting tired. It has to be effective pressure and effective possession."

To that end, Portland upgraded both the talent and depth in midfield during the offseason. Most significant of those additions is Diego Valeri. A creative 26-year-old Argentine, Valeri seemed to quickly develop chemistry with Darlington Nagbe and new striker Ryan Johnson.

"He's a real smart player," Nagbe said of Valeri. "He looks to play quick, and combine. I love that. Get him the ball and then try to run off of him and he'll find the pass."

Another element to the attack will be new outside backs Michael Harrington and Ryan Miller. In addition to defending the flanks, each will be asked to push forward and generate scoring chances.

Porter and his players talked confidently during preseason about the Timbers' attack. Portland scored 34 goals in 34 games last season, second fewest in the league.

The Timbers hope that Ryan Johnson, a former Oregon State standout, can help improve that number significantly. The 28-year-old Jamaican is entering his prime after scoring seven of Toronto FC's 36 goals last season.

The main disrupter of opposing attacks again figures to be midfielder Diego Chara. The 26-year-old Colombian led the Timbers in minutes played last season and was second in MLS with 72 fouls committed.

Jewsbury, who missed most of preseason with a hamstring injury, is one of several midfielders whose versatility is valuable. Returnees Rodney Wallace and Sal Zizzo, plus additions such as Ben Zemanski and Michael Nanchoff might be deployed differently each match.

The most high-profile departures — other than coach John Spencer, who was fired last August — were that of Scottish striker Kris Boyd and Cameroonian midfielder Franck Songo'o.

Many of the moves made by Porter and Wilkinson brought to Portland players who fit the coach's vision. But injuries at forward and center back contributed to the decisions to sign 35-year-old defender Mikael Silvestre and 34-year-old Frederic Piquionne.

Still, the Timbers remain a young team with a first-year coach. The question for 2013 is whether or not potential turns into production.

"I think these guys are hungry," Porter said. "They have a lot to prove. We have a lot to prove yet in this league."