What do you do for an encore after you have delivered the championship your fans were yearning for?
If you are the Portland Timbers, you bring back most of the same team and look to win in even more impression fashion.
That is the lofty bar being set by Caleb Porter's Timbers, who enter 2016 as reigning champions and brimming with confidence after ending last season on a lengthy hot streak that showcased the team's considerable potential.
"It’s not like we’re thinking that because we won the cup that we’re going to run through the league this year,” Porter told GoalUSA. “But at the same time, it doesn’t hurt to know that you can do it, and you had a team that was good enough to do it last year and you pretty much kept your starting 11 intact except for one or two players.
“We want to get back to that level as quickly as possible, and we know if we do we can beat anybody.”
MLS is notorious for having roster and salary cap rules that effectively help dismantle championship teams, but while the Timbers did wind up saying farewell to some key players, they also worked the winter market well. The team brought in an impressive haul of MLS veterans to fill the void left by the departures of Jorge Villafana, Rodney Wallace and Max Urruti.
Villafana's loss was the most painful one for Portland, but the Timbers have added a handful of players who could help fill the void at left back. Chris Klute was expected to take on the role, but a knee injury during preseason slowed down his integration into his new team. Veteran Jamaican defender Jermaine Taylor could wind up being an option to start until Klute is ready, whether as the left back or as a center back, with Liam Ridgwell potentially sliding in at left back.
If the Timbers solve their left back issue successfully, their defense should continue to be one of the better ones in MLS. That would bode well for a successful title defense, especially if the Timbers can trot out an even more dangerous attack this year than in 2015.
That might be possible given the speed the Timbers are expecting to be able trot out on the wings this year. Portland lost Rodney Wallace to a free transfer this winter, but shouldn't miss a beat as Argentine designated player Lucas Melano and Colombian winger Dairon Asprilla are projected to slot in as starting wingers.
“With Melano and Asprilla, we have two guys that are really dynamic and threaten the opponent going wide,” Porter said. “Melano looks a lot more settled, and Asprilla looks a lot more settled. Both those two players were up and down last year and that was because of the transition. Coming into the league and learning English, and so many other things that take time.
“They’re crucial because once they start pulling teams apart wide, now that opens up space for Nagbe, Valeri and Adi,” Porter said. “If we get the width and the central channel rolling, and all three channels are producing, we’re a really tough team to stop.”
The Timbers' chances of a winning another title are likely to hinge on Darlington Nagbe's ability to maintain or even exceed the extremely high level of play he achieved toward the end of the 2015 season, when a permanent move into a central midfield role helped him blossom just in time to lead the Timbers to a championship. Nagbe and Diego Valeri give the Timbers the most dangerous attacking midfield tandem in the league.
Nigerian striker Fanendo Adi will once again be called on to carry the load as the team's target striker, but the Timbers have brought in Jack McInerney, who could thrive in Portland either as a strike partner for Adi, or his understudy.
McInerney is one of a handful of MLS veterans the Timbers brought in to boost the team's depth, which is why you could argue the 2016 Timbers could be even stronger than the squad that won MLS Cup last year.
"When we looked at who we were going to lose, and who we would look to replace those players with, we thought the best approach would be to go in the league and get guys who would transition quicker, and know the league already," Porter said. "The reason we went that route was also because we had signed a lot of foreign players over the last several years. You’re looking to balance out the makeup of our roster."
Now with depth, and a balanced squad with no glaring weaknesses, the Timbers are ready to show the rest of the league that last year's title was no fluke, and a second MLS Cup is a very real possibility.
PORTLAND TIMBERS SEASON PREVIEW
2015 FINISH: Third in Western Conference (15-11-8), MLS Cup champions
NOTABLE ADDITIONS: D Chris Klute, D Jermaine Taylor, F Jack McInerney, D Zarek Valentin, M Ned Grabavoy, F Neco Brett, F Ben Polk
NOTABLE LOSSES: D Jorge Villafana, M Rodney Wallace, F Max Urruti, D Norberto Papparatto
TOP NEWCOMER:Chris Klute. The former Columbus Crew fullback was signed to replace Jorge Villafana, who parlayed an outstanding 2015 into a transfer to Santos Laguna. A knee injury sidelined Klute for a large part of preseason, and might keep him from being the Timbers' opening day left back, but Klute's quality at the position should allow him to eventually make that role his once he is healthy.
PLAYER TO WATCH:Darlington Nagbe. When Caleb Porter made the decision to slide Nagbe into a central midfield role, where his dynamic passing movement and speed could wreak havoc, the move unlocked something in Nagbe and the Timbers, who proceeded to go on a dominating run to the MLS Cup title. In the process, Nagbe earned himself a place on the U.S. national team, and now looks like a potential starter there.
"Darlington really found a home in the middle last year and I think this year he's going to show that he's the best in the league in that role," Porter said. "He showed that last year once he made the move, and he will just keep getting better."
The Timbers were the best team in MLS over the course of the final two months of 2015, and there is no reason to think they can't reach that level on a consistent basis in 2016. They bring back most of the key players from the championship squad, and now have even more depth after adding a handful of established MLS veterans.
The keys for Portland's run at a second title will be keeping top stars like Nagbe, Valeri and Adi healthy, getting consistently dangerous contributions from wingers Melano and Asprilla, and also the successful integration of a new left back, be it Klute or one of the team's other options. If all of these work in the Timbers' favor this season, there is no reason they can't repeat as champions.
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