No unit for the Timbers has seen the amount of turnover during the past year than the strikeforce. The unit that started 2012 locked down by Jorge Perlaza and Kris Boyd was alternatively populated on a rotating basis by a litany of different starters, including Danny Mwanga, Bright Dike, Darlington Nagbe, Franck Songo’o, Brent Richards, Sal Zizzo, and Mike Fucito.
Whereas 2012 was marked by inconsistency and experimentation, the outlook going into 2013 appears much more settled. Then again, you could have said that this time last year, as well.
Of the list of 2012 starters at forward, only Darlington Nagbe looks likely to spend significant time there in 2013. Songo’o, Boyd, Perlaza, Fucito, and Mwanga are gone. Zizzo appears out of favor. Dike and Richards are hurt.
In their place are Ryan Johnson, Jose Valencia, and Frederic Piquionne, who, along with Nagbe, appear most likely to round out Portland’s forward rotation in 2013.
If he hadn’t by default already, Ryan Johnson locked up the starting striker position with his hat trick against San Jose. Johnson’s ascendancy, once in question under the pressure of a challenge by longtime-Timber Bright Dike, is now entirely certain after a strong preseason tournament and Dike’s likely season-ending injury.
Initial indications are that Johnson is a perfect fit for Caleb Porter’s centrally based offense, as he has shown he excels with balls played to his feet. Once the ball finds his boots, he has shown the capacity to either take a deft touch or two and get a shot off or hold the ball up and look for a teammate. Johnson is no one-trick pony, however, as his first Timbers goal indicated he can make himself a target in the box and finish crosses coming in from wide areas. Finally, and vitally for Porter’s sake, Ryan has shown ample willingness to play effective high defense.
When the Timbers run a two-forward set, expect Darlington Nagbe to be lined up as a second forward that tracks well back into the midfield – often playing underneath Diego Valeri. This is the ideal spot for Nagbe, as it lets him track back to pick the ball up deep, but also relieves him of the playmaking responsibilities that come with a traditional number ten spot. Instead, Nagbe can look to quickly play the ball forward – as we’ve seen most often with Valeri – or use his remarkable acceleration and keep the ball at his feet to search for his own shot.
Simply put, by taking the primary playmaking and scoring responsibilities off Nagbe’s shoulders, Caleb Porter has let Darlington do what he’s best at – whatever he wants. The preseason results have been solid, as Nagbe logged two assists in the preseason tourney and sparked a number of other promising attacks.
Perhaps Dike’s injury affected no position more than the third forward position. While Dike made a convincing case for himself to start at the end of 2012, and did nothing to harm his good standing in Tucson before the injury, he was always probably an underdog to beat out Johnson for the starting spot up top. Thus, his injury opened the door for one of Portland’s young forwards – Jose Valencia, Danny Mwanga, or Sebastian Rincon – to step forward and earn consistent playing time.
The news on Thursday was that one of those three – Mwanga – had been shipped to Colorado in exchange for “a” 2015 First Round SuperDraft Pick. The most important word in that sentence is also the shortest one – “a” – as it’s not clear if that means any first round pick, or Colorado’s natural first rounder. While you can’t count them out, it appears Colorado’s rebuilding process is going to be an extended one. Accordingly, it isn’t unreasonable to think the Rapids’ 2015 natural first round pick could be in the top half of the draft. If so, don’t be surprised if the “a” allows Colorado to trade for a less valuable pick to send Portland’s way in satisfaction of their end of the Mwanga deal. So, don’t count on “a” first round pick being an especially good one.
The other shoe that dropped Thursday was the signing of Piquionne to a one-year deal. Merritt Paulson confirmed that Piquionne and Mwanga were essentially a wash in their salary numbers, but that salary cap implications led to Mwanga’s trade. So what gives?
In all likelihood, the Timbers had to extend Mwanga’s contract when they renegotiated it over the winter. Accordingly, although they negotiated Danny to a lower number, they had to carry it for longer. Once it became clear he wasn’t in Caleb Porter’s plans, Mwanga’s 2014 – and perhaps beyond – salary made him a bad asset.
Enter, Piquionne. In all likelihood the Martinician is little more than Bright Dike’s seat warmer. He’ll likely be fourth on the strikeforce depth chart, but see time as a spot reserve and in case of injury. Although he is certainly a different player from Valencia, he will likely now be the player breathing down Trencito’s neck for the first forward off the bench – something that may help keep the youngster motivated and improving as the season progresses. In all, then, the Timbers got an upgrade over Mwanga, salary cap relief for 2014 and potentially beyond, and a 2015 first round draft pick – even if perhaps not a top 10 selection. Not a bad day for Caleb Porter and Gavin Wilkinson.
As for Trencito, he’s raw, and it shows with relative regularity. But make no mistake; the modern Portland Timbers have never seen a forward as oozing with talent. While he often tries to do too much himself, Valencia’s physicality and ball skills make his potential readily apparent.
Valencia, then, is still in the best spot to most benefit from the sudden scarcity of options at forward. Trencito’s absurd talent makes him the perfect late game substitute, when his athleticism and ball skills allow him to take advantage of fatigue-loosened defenses. Notably, in his six-plus minutes against AIK, Trencito substantially outshone Piquionne; suggesting that Trencito will be the primary option off the bench. He has emerged as not only the best option in the short term, but also as a player the Timbers would like to see getting regular first team minutes to aid his development.
The 2012 strikeforce was decidedly lesser than the sum of its parts. At times it seemed to be a random collection of decent-to-good players who in no way complimented each other and were disastrously unproductive as a unit.
Version 2013, while not as deep, is much more intentional in its construction. If this group can stay healthy, it looks like it could be the building block for the Timbers’ strikeforce for the foreseeable future.
Forward Depth Chart
1. Ryan Johnson
2. Darlington Nagbe
3. Jose Valencia
4. Frederic Piquionne
5. Sebastian Rincon
Onward, Rose City!
 While Porter has nominally lined up in a 4-3-3 in the last three matches, the reality has been that the Timbers have been in a one or two forward set the vast majority of the time. Thus, when I refer to the third forward position here, it refers to the first player off the bench.
 But still a really nice guy.