MLS 2011 team preview: Portland
2010 record and finish: Expansion team in 2011
Key Additions: D/M Jeremy Hall, D/M Rodney Wallace, D Kevin Goldthwaite, D Kerrea Gilbert, G Troy Perkins, F Kenny Cooper, D Eric Brunner, D David Horst, M Adam Moffat, M Peter Lowry, M/F Darlington Nagbe, D Chris Taylor, M/F Sal Zizzo, M Jack Jewsbury, F Jorge Perlaza
Key questions facing this team:
1. How long will it take Portland to gel?
The single biggest challenge of any expansion side is formulating the kind of on-field chemistry that most teams take for granted. So Portland has cleverly tried to mine the roster from last year's team that resided in the USSF Division 2. As of this writing, no fewer than 14 12 players from that organization were in camp. But the very nature of expansion teams is that players are brought in from all over. For that reason, leaders will need to establish themselves and roles will need to be quickly identified. It's a difficult task for manager John Spencer, and time is a luxury he doesn't have.
2. Will the defense be good enough?
The attack is typically the last aspect of a team to come together, as players become familiar with each others' strengths and weaknesses. Without much cutting edge up top, that means an expansion team's slim playoff hopes rest on establishing some defensive cohesion from the get-go to steal some points early and gain some confidence.
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At first glance, Portland has some interesting pieces in place, especially given the championship experience of players such as central defender Eric Brunner and holding midfielder Adam Moffat. But for the most part, the defenders at Spencer's disposal are more of the journeyman variety. On the plus side, these players have something to prove, which is an attitude that can help foster an esprit de corps. The downside is that it seems unlikely such a group will hold up over an entire season unless some additional reinforcements are found.
3. Can Kenny Cooper regain his mojo?
The Timbers' acquisition of Cooper was inspired, as his strike rate of 40 goals in 90 games gives them a potent forward. But Cooper's most recent go-round in Europe with 1860 Munich saw him hampered by injury. Did the time on the sideline dull his skills, or will they come back quickly? Spencer is clearly banking on the latter.
Biggest X factor: Troy Perkins
So which Troy Perkins will show up? The one whose nearly impeccable work in MLS and Norway had him on the fringes of the U.S. national team, or the one whose nightmare season for D.C. United last year resulted in him playing his way right off the U.S. World Cup roster?
On his day, Perkins is more than capable of delivering the saves needed to keep his team in games, but on an admittedly poor United team in 2010, he crumbled under the pressure that was put on him. A rebound season by Perkins is paramount for the Timbers to reach the postseason.
Breakout player to watch: Darlington Nagbe
When Vancouver selected Omar Salgado with the first overall pick in January's MLS SuperDraft, Portland could barely believe its luck. It meant Nagbe, arguably the most talented attacking player in the draft, had fallen into its lap.
Nagbe has almost more attacking tools than he knows what to do with. He's fast and creative but also deceptively strong, allowing him to play with his back to the goal when needed. Of course, the jump to MLS will test all of these abilities, and his recent surgery for a sports hernia could slow his progress initially. But Nagbe looks set to follow in the footsteps of former collegiate teammate Steve Zakuani and vie for the league's Rookie of the Year award.
Outlook: Portland fans would just as soon eat lint than be content to follow in the footsteps of archrival Seattle. Yet the Sounders remain the only MLS expansion team in the last decade to reach the postseason in their first year, so at least in one respect, the Timbers will be hoping to emulate their historical enemies.
Alas, as of this writing, the roster doesn't look up to the task, even with MLS increasing the pool of playoff teams from eight to 10. Portland has made ample use of its Division 2 pipeline and appears to have done well in the SuperDraft. However, the sense is that the Timbers could have made better use of its picks in the expansion draft. An even more gaping hole is the relative lack of activity in the international market, an avenue that Seattle made extensive use of during its first season. Forward Jorge Perlaza may yet be the second coming of Fredy Montero. Or not. But besides Perlaza and defender Kerrea Gilbert, Portland's roster is comprised entirely of domestic players foreign recruiting efforts have yet to bear much fruit.
That's not a knock on American players. After all, they are the backbone of MLS. But when it comes to acquiring players with a bit of flair, those performers are more easily found on the overseas market.
Without question, this will be a memorable season of soccer in Portland, an area with a long and rich soccer tradition. Just don't expect it to be capped off with a trip to the postseason.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.