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Thursday, February 16, 2012
Updated: February 27, 1:37 PM ET
MLS 2012 preview: Portland Timbers

By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com

Timbers Army
Portland's supporters are like the 12th man, but last season, when the Timbers played away from home, they were less an army and more like road kill. Can they improve in 2012?

2011 record and finish: 11-14-9 (sixth place in Western Conference)

Additions: F Kris Boyd, D Hayner Mosquera, D Andrew Jean-Baptiste, M Charles Renken, F Brent Richards, F Jose Adolfo Valencia, M Franck Songo'o, G Joe Bendik

Losses: F Kenny Cooper, D Kevin Goldthwaite, F Ryan Pore, G Adin Brown, M Rodrigo Lopez, M Peter Lowry, F Brian Umony

Key questions facing this team

1. Can the Timbers become road warriors?

Portland missed out on a playoff spot by four points, and the biggest reason was a woeful 2-9-6 road record. Only New England, Toronto and Vancouver recorded fewer away points. And not even an improved defense was enough, as Portland was still 1-3-4 in its last eight road matches. The team is more experienced now, and some veteran help was brought in, but without question the Timbers' road mentality will need to improve.

2. Will Kris Boyd deliver up front?

With his penchant for drifting into wide positions, Kenny Cooper never quite fit in with what coach John Spencer wanted in a striker and was shipped to New York. Enter Boyd, a classic box player who is effective both in the air and on the ground. But he is also a player who is reliant on others to set him up, meaning Portland's midfield, especially on the flanks, will need to provide better service than it did a year ago.

3. Was the team's defensive improvement for real?

The numbers are staggering. In the first half of the season, the Timbers surrendered 31 goals but just 17 in the second half. This wasn't because of a slew of home games, either, as 10 of the team's last 17 games were on the road. Back-line reinforcements have been brought in, with Colombian Hayner Mosquera and rookie Andrew Jean-Batiste having arrived in the offseason. But the outside back positions still look a bit suspect, and the likes of Lovel Palmer, Mike Chabala and Rodney Wallace will need to prove they can hold up over an entire season.

Gershon Koffie, Darlington Nagbe
To increase his production, Portland is considering moving Darlington Nagbe from midfield to forward.

Biggest X factor: Diego Chara

The Colombian was another key factor in the Timbers' defensive improvement, as his partnership in the center of midfield with Jack Jewsbury made the team stronger up the middle. Now that he's had a year to adjust to MLS, his play should begin to stand out even more. That could provide the tipping point to propel Portland into the postseason.

Breakout player to watch: Darlington Nagbe

Big things were expected of Nagbe last year, and while he showed some glimpses of greatness -- in particular his sumptuous strike against Kansas City that earned him MLS Goal of the Year -- his haul of two goals and three assists in 28 appearances indicates more is needed. A move from midfield to forward is being contemplated, and that could be precisely what is needed to see his production skyrocket.

Outlook

The expansion grace period is over, and after a largely successful inaugural campaign the hard work of meeting raised expectations beckons for Portland.

The Timbers were very selective in terms of their offseason recruits, and with one of those, forward Jose Adolfo Valencia, likely out for the year because of knee surgery, Spencer will rely heavily on the core of players he put together last year to get Portland over the playoff hump. The only problem is that the change in playoff format means the Timbers will have to break into the top-five places in the stacked Western Conference. Granted, Portland finished sixth last year, but it was also seven points adrift of fifth-place Colorado. The teams that finished behind the Timbers have not been idle, either.

Not to belabor the point, but the key will be to secure more points on the road. That will require continued defensive improvement, as well as greater goal production out of a midfield that produced little beyond the stellar play of Jewsbury. Boyd, Jorge Perlaza and Nagbe will also need to deliver.

All told, the race for the fifth and final playoff spot in the West should go down to the wire, and Portland, if it stays healthy, could be the team to prevail.