I thought I’d written my last post for the year two weeks ago after the title match. The story of the Thorns FC 2013 seemed to have a happy ending, and there remained nothing more than to bask in the glow of Portland’s second ever big-league sports title.
Whoever takes the field for the Timbers in the home opener, it’ll be a very different team to that which saw out 2012 in front a battle-weary Timbers Army. I expect only 4 players will remain in the starting team from then: Donovan Ricketts, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe. Of the other 11, 3 are gone, 2 are injured and Danny Mwanga and Sal Zizzo are unlikely to start.
Mikael Silvestre will, depending on fitness levels, start. Considering the lack of game time, and even training that the 35 year old has missed, that seems like a risk, but perhaps reflects Caleb Porter ‘playing safe’ with the established international defender partnering a much less experienced Jean-Baptiste or Dylan Tucker-Gangnes, rather than the two rookies who started together against AIK.
If Silvestre plays, Jean-Baptiste would start as Mosquera and Horst are still injured, and Danso seems to be about as welcome in the starting team as a fart in a spacesuit. © Billy Connolly
vs New York Red Bulls
Sun 3 Mar, 16:30
The Timbers kick off their third season on Sunday, facing New York Red Bulls. It’ll be the second time Thierry Henry has played at Jeld-Wen, with his debut in 2011 ending in a red card after a goal in a 3-3 draw that was also my first ever live match at Jeld-Wen, which I attended through a fog of jet-lag and as such I remember next to nothing of.
New York are one of a group of clubs that have most shaken up their rosters this offseason and, like Portland, they enter 2013 with a new head coach, Mike Petke.
Petke became the 7th head coach still under 40 in MLS this year, reflecting a trend towards a younger head coach/manager as compared to other top flights around the world.
Petke takes over a club he’s been long associated with, and one who have yet to really get a return for their investment in high-profile players.
Henry, Tim Cahill, Fabian Espindola and Juninho Pernambucano are all guys who would expect to be on a successful team in MLS, while Dax McCarty, Jamison Olave and Heath Pearce add defensive solidity.
There are a couple of familiar faces on the New York roster this year. Eric Alexander has featured for New York this offseason, but will struggle to hold off the returning Dax McCarty from the spot alongside Cahill in midfield. Another year of waiting in the wings for a chance to impress seems to await for Alexander.
Kosuke Kimura never really found a home in the Timbers defence, but he may well start for New York at right-back. Given his struggles last year, and what the Timbers coaching staff saw of him in training every day, it may be interesting to see whether Porter looks to exploit Kimura’s lack of positional awareness by playing Harrington with more scope to go forward and beyond Kimura. This would allow Nagbe to push inside and ask questions of the New York defence by picking up the ball with 30 yards to goal rather than 50.
New York went winless in the Desert Diamond Cup, losing three of four, and seem to be struggling to find the right mix under a rookie coach – sound familiar? – but the ability of their star players means that you write them off at your peril. I think this is a winnable game, but just as we can hurt New York, the worry remains that we still have a glass jaw when it comes to defence.
If Silvestre plays, I’d expect to see us play a little deeper than we otherwise might in a home opener. It may stretch us out, and New York have players who thrive on find space between the line, so much rests on the full-backs and central midfield two to step up and put in a real shift to be both solid in defence and the link to Valeri and the forward three.
The Timbers failed to score first in each of the pre-season tournament matches, but finding the net first here would really help settle the team down and allow them to concentrate on playing a patient passing game as opposed to trying to chase down another first goal against.
vs Montreal Impact
Sat 9 Mar, 19:30
Six days after facing New York, the Timbers Army will reassemble to welcome Montreal Impact, and to see 2-0 loss in Quebec last season avenged.
Troy Perkins will, if fit and selected, play in front of his old fans for the first time since a 1-1 draw against FC Dallas last August. Seems safe to bet that Perkins will receive a more favourable welcome than that for Mike Fucito
Montreal have also changed head coaches, with Marco Schällibaum giving up the glamour of life as a coaching instructor in Qatar and Mongolia to take his first head coaching job outside of Europe.
Schällibaum inherits a squad that has added to its experienced Italian core of Nesta, Ferrari and Di Vaio with the experienced winger, Andrea Pisanu.
For as bad as the Timbers were on the road last year, and they were bad, it’s worth noting that the Impact earned only 2 points more than Portland, and lost on both their 2012 trips to the West Coast.
Despite this poor away form Montreal would’ve been right in the play-off hunt until the end were it not for a late season collapse that saw them pick up only 3 points in the last 6 games. Improvements on the road are a priority this year and they can set the right tone early on as they begin the season with a Cascadia double header, opening up in Seattle before traveling down the I-5 towards fresh air.
In contrast to New York and Portland, the new coach hasn’t been busying himself building a new team so the roster remains largely unchanged, which means that they still rely heavily on the 36 year old knees of Macro Di Vaio not giving out at all.
Most likely Montreal would line up in a 4-5-1 with, fitness allowing, Di Vaio up top, Mapp and Pisanu wide, and Bernier, Arnaud, Felipe and Wallace fighting it out for the three central positions.
Once again, Montreal lack a bit of pace at the back, and it would be interesting to see what a dynamic front three of Nagbe, Trencito and Ryan Johnson could do against them, with Valeri providing the ammunition.
Chara and Will Johnson would have to match up, and push their opposite numbers on to the back foot and isolate Di Vaio, who is still capable of flashes of his old brilliance, but can be kept quiet by an organized and mobile defence.
Starting the season with 2 home matches gives Porters team a great chance to make put points on the board early on. Seattle, in Seattle, await after Montreal, so there is every imperative to hit the ground running before going in search of a debut MLS win in Groupon country.