Nobody knew what to expect when the Timbers boarded a plane to Tucson two weeks ago. A new roster, new coach, and new system left the Timbers a mystery to even themselves. The keep away and short-sided games of the first week of camp did little to shed light on this Timbers team’s identity.
Two weeks and four preseason games later, many of those questions have begun to be answered. Here’s the good, the bad, and the still unknown coming out of Tucson.
The Central Midfield
It took a little bit of shaking out, but by the end of the trip Caleb Porter seemed to have found his best central midfield combination. While Diego Chara and Will Johnson initially showed a little bit of confusion playing with each other, their full potential was revealed when deployed in a 4-2-3-1 with the two of them holding and Diego Valeri in the middle of the higher three. With Valeri, Chara, and Johnson patrolling the center – and Darlington Nagbe floating inside with regularity – the Timbers dominated Seattle’s largely second-choice midfield, and neutralized Mauro Rosales by forcing him into the center to contend with the Timbers midfield. While this unit certainly won’t be quite so dominant against better opposition, if the midfield can come close to replicating that effectiveness, 2013 will be much more enjoyable than either of the previous two seasons.
When Miller was signed, I was one of the few that was skeptical that he would come in and win the starting job right away. Through three weeks, Miller already looks like the best defensive right back in Timbers MLS history. Although he has not provided as much going forward as I’m sure Caleb Porter would like, that hasn’t been as much of a problem with the Timbers dominance in the middle.
The Second Unit
Between an on-form Andrew Jean-Baptiste, a healthier Jose Valencia, and an impressive trial from Michael Nanchoff, the Timbers are leaving the experimental phase of the offseason with substantially more depth than in the prior two years. Add in Danny Mwanga, Jack Jewsbury, Rodney Wallace, and Sal Zizzo, and the Timbers have viable second options at almost every position.
The Timbers looked to the former Sporting backup left back to replace Steven Smith and hold down the Timbers left back position. While it is far too early to write off The Hair, his modest start as a Timber doesn’t compare favorably to his fellow newbie on the right. Harrington has been ineffective in the attacking third and the weakest link in a defense whose jury remains sequestered. Harrington’s brightest play has been in the midfield, where he has occasionally provided a little bit of a relief valve for the men in the middle. Still, Mike has a good amount of work to do to justify his substantial salary and make us forget Steven Smith’s late 2012 form.
ACLs, MCLs, and Menisci
Seriously, what the heck? First Brent, then Bright? Go ahead and knock out two of the TA’s most beloved, why don’t you? Dike’s injury is particularly disappointing, however, as he was starting to look more and more comfortable with his opportunities coming through the middle. The Dike v. Johnson debate was going to be the most interesting on the last couple weeks of camp. Now, we just hope for a speedy recovery for both of these guys, although, considering the timing and nature of their injuries, it seems like a relative longshot to see them back in the eighteen this season.
The Last Two Roster Spots
With Eric Alexander gone and Franck Songo’o all but officially shipped out, the Timbers have two remaining available roster spots. One seems likely to go to a defender. Mikael Silvestre stated his case with a decent couple weeks in Tucson. The question with Silvestre must be price, as in Tucson he looked like he could still fill the role of a decent MLS center back, but at what cost? If it’s much into the six figures, expect the Timbers to look elsewhere.
Word broke last week, and Monday’s practice confirmed, that the Timbers were bringing in English-bred, American-educated, and Swedish-employed center back Calum Angus. Angus has played significantly over the last three years with GAIS in the Swedish first division, appearing 61 times, and earning a trial with West Ham at the end of 2011. Because his team was relegated in 2012, Angus has been set free to seek opportunities elsewhere, apparently including Portland.
In addition to reinforcement at the back, Porter has stated that he intends to take a look at a few more strikers in the wake of Dike’s injury. In that vein, and to my personal delight, the Timbers have brought Belizean talisman Deon McCaulay into camp on trial. Considering he’s spent most of his career in the Premiere League of Belize, McCaulay is a little bit of a longshot to earn a roster spot, but 15 goals in 26 international appearances aren’t completely insignificant, especially considering Belize just shocked the Yucatan by taking fourth in the Copa Centroamericana. But, still, Belize.
This is a little bit academic, but we still don’t have a strong indication of how the Timbers will line up. Entering the preseason tournament, one could still make a case for a diamond 4-4-2, a 4-3-3, or the 4-2-3-1 we saw against Seattle. What’s more important, however, is that we do have a good idea of how the Timbers are trying to play – high and central. So, regardless of how Porter constructs his lineup, expect to see a number of guys in the midfield given an invitation to float into the interior and control the game from there. Conveniently, that suits much of Portland’s wing personnel just fine.
Onward, Rose City!
 There, I said it.
 Belizean Rum Punch Recipe! Over heavy rocks, mix a hefty shot of (preferably gold) rum with more or less equal parts mango juice, pineapple juice, and Sprite. Squeeze in a generous slice of lime, and enjoy! Don’t fear the mango. If you want to enjoy it in Belize, I suggest San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. Don’t be bashful about taking at least a day trip into Mayan ruins on the mainland, however. Lamanai is my personal favorite. Also, the snorkeling and diving is delightful because the Belize Barrier Reef, the third largest barrier reef in the world, forms pretty outstanding marine habitat and pretty tranquil waters for more novice snorkelers. For the best mix of value and weather, visit either a couple weeks before Thanksgiving or in February after the kiddos go back to school. Drink recipes, football musings, and travel tips. What you got, Stumptown Footy?