The season is almost here, and it appears Portland is almost ready to go. The squad is currently doing some preseason training in Costa Rica. Their first preseason match was yesterday against Saprissa, which Portland won 2-1.
Mora is on a loan using Targeted Allocation Money, according to The Athletic. The loan reportedly includes an option to buy, which means Portland can retain him next season if he finally becomes the #9 we’ve been looking for since… well, the #9 we’ve been looking for.
Mora has played in Chile and Mexico, the latter with Cruz Azul and Pumas.
Mora is a pure #9. He plants himself on the defense’s backline, often in between the opponent center backs. Most of his goals come from headers and poaching chances in the box. Not a bad plan for a team that fell into the empty void of crosses last season—Portland was 2nd in MLS in crosses (557) and 12th in goals scored (53)—so after a naive first glance, it would seem they need a proven poacher upfront.
Brian Fernández was more of a dynamic forward, and so is Jarek Niezgoda, Portland’s newest signee. Niezgoda probably cost just under $4 million in transfer fees, and he joins the squad as a Designated Player, occupying the third and final DP spot on the Timbers’ roster.
Since becoming a bonafide starter for Legia Warsaw in 2017, Niezgoda has scored 39 goals in 87 appearances. This includes a Polish-league-leading 14 goals in 18 appearances in the latest installment of the Ekstraklasa.
He’s a spry 24, so hopefully a touch quicker than CSN’s own Kevin Nesgoda.
After announcing the signing of Niezgoda, Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson gave a very interesting sigh of relief to MLS’s Tom Bogert. Included was a scouting report of the new striker:
“Jarek is capable of playing as a single No. 9 or as a two, and he’s even played out wide in the past. Balancing his characteristics with Jeremy, we feel very good about that position. He’s a goal scorer, comfortable with both feet. Good size, good athleticism and can finish in a variety of ways. He attacks the ball. With his feet, he’s very quick, gets the ball off his foot very quickly and he’s an honest, hard-working player.”
via Tom Bogert
On the Pitch
In the aforementioned report, Gavin indicated the Timbers would announce the signings of Mora and Cristhian Paredes (who is still technically on loan from Club América). These were both given substance by fan-turned-insider Keith Palau, and the former was confirmed by the Timbers.
Portland will have two DP attacking wingers and one DP forward. My assumption is that all three of these players will start, making an all-DP front line of Sebástian Blanco, Niezgoda, and Yimmi Chará. Both Blanco and Yimmi historically like to cut inside, meaning the Jorges (Moreira and Villafaña) will continue to bomb up the flanks and send in crosses.
This is all fine and good, except it would be ideal to have a big center forward on the end of those. Mora may seem like the obvious choice for this, but keep in mind that Niezgoda is 6’1″—small in basketball, but pretty dang tall for a soccer player. Within his quick assessment of Niezgoda, head coach Giovanni Savarese mentioned the forward being “good with his head,” so it hopefully he’s still be an aerial threat.
Possible Starting Formations
As per last week’s roster check, this is still how I saw the starting XI shaking out:
But Gavin’s comments from last week have me almost certain of a two-forward system. He mentioned the system itself and made it clear Jebo had a place in the squad:
“We believe in Jeremy Ebobisse,” Wilkinson said.&nbsp;”He’s a quality player with a big upside and he’s not the finished product, so we have to be careful not to limit his growth and minutes. We wanted to acquire a Young DP that also has an upside that Jeremy can compete with, and with a profile to change systems and tactics so they can play with one another.”
via Tom Bogert
This dual-striker idea, while presenting an attacking pipe dream (via a probable solution to Portland’s problem of breaking down teams in a low block), begs the question—if we’re adding a forward, who comes off the field?
My instincts say a holding midfielder (so, Paredes) or moving to three at the back by replacing Villafaña and Moreira with another fullback (probably Bill Tuiloma). Playing with three center backs is something Savarese mentioned at Portland’s Media Day last week.
I’d also welcome a three-man backline that still included the regular outside fullbacks. For these purposes, I’m assuming the Jorges’ attacking tendencies (and long-lamented lack of tracking back) would keep them out of this system, but I’m sure Gio could justify a way of making it work.
Maybe some Jebo on the Wing™ will be a starting option in a 4-3-3.
Right now, the 4-3-3 would be my best guess as to what the Timbers will put out on March 1st. It checks all the boxes Gavin mentioned and keeps Portland’s most proven players on the field in a system that’s still similar to Gio’s past ones.
If one thing’s clear from these signings, it’s that it’s finally time to say goodbye to Savarese’s beloved 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” that served as Portland’s security blanket XI in the past two years. Poor Tannenbaum.
Portland may also play with five at the back that adapts into a 3-6-1 or 3-5-2 in attack to utilize the strengths of the Jorges. Feel free to choose your own adventure and plugin Jebo somewhere with this formation, too.
Regardless of what exact system Gio goes with, the fact that we can even speculate this much highlights an important feature of this team: its positive evolution. At the beginning of last season, we were struggling to select 11 guys that were starting-caliber MLS players. Now it seems we have an embarrassment of riches, especially up top.
Although we haven’t seen them in action yet, Gavin and owner Merritt Paulson should be receiving a bit of praise for clearly identifying areas of need and filling them with no-nonsense signings. Again, we have to see how these newbies adapt, but on paper, it’s a job well done.
Here’s my interpretation of a hypothetical Timbers “depth chart”—I went for realisticness over the organization. Considering we’re pretty far from even knowing what kind of formation or system we’ll play, it’s safe to say most of this is up in the air. Still, feel free to slander me on any social media platform or the comments below.
Steve Clark has proven his spot as the first keeper over the course of last season. In 24 starts last season, Clark finished third in MLS in save percentage (.755), second in goals allowed per 90 (1.04) and recorded a clean sheet 25% of the time. The Timbers are clearly committed to Clark, giving him a new contract over the offseason.
Attinella is still a starting-quality ‘keeper for the most part, and he did start in 10 matches last season. While he conceded 24 goals in that stretch, it’s worth noting that both these goalies dealt with some truly abysmal performances by the other 10 players throughout the season, too.
One of Portland’s worst overall positions last year was center back. When Larrys Mabiala was out with an injury, it seemed the Cascante-Tuiloma pairing took much too long to gel. Claude Dielna (who was not resigned) struggled to keep up with the competition when called upon, as well. Even when Mabiala returned, the defense was still not up to snuff. Often times, it took Steve Clark standing on his head to keep the ball out of the net.
It wasn’t surprising, then, that the first big offseason move Portland made was to sign a new center back, Dario Zuparic. A TAM signing, Zuparic will probably be good enough, especially because of Gio’s indication that Tuiloma can be used at positions other than CB.
*As of yesterday’s match against Saprissa, Tuiloma will be out for two months. Better sign another defender…
No signings have been made here (yet), so the depth chart pretty much stays the same.
Farfan is preferred on the left, and it feels like Moreira’s spot is a tad more secure than Villafaña’s.
Bill will appear on both outside back positions just as a filler. Unless there are injuries, I doubt we’ll actually see him there.
- Jorge Moreira
- Marco Farfan
- Bill Tuiloma
Again, nothing new here, although right back was an area addressed by Gavin and Gio at Media Day. Farfan is still the second string at both these positions assuming he recovers well from injury.
Chris Duvall is currently on trial as a right back with the squad in Costa Rica. He’d be a solid backup at a thin position.
*Flores is out for a bit with a meniscus tear, but that shouldn’t change this order too much.
Depending on how Gio decides to set up, we may continue to see the Paredes/Chará pairing in the holding midfield. If only one is used, it will be Chará. Portland’s only All-Star last year was sent there for a reason. He still hasn’t shown signs of slowing down, even at 33.
Zambrano and Williamson got intermittent reps with the first team last year, and Williamson especially got some crucial minutes. The soon-to-be-23-year-old played a full 90 in Portland’s 2-1 home win over Sporting Kansas City in September and started the next match, playing 61 more minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he passed the more experienced Zambrano during the year.
Tuiloma has actually played a bit of stopper for us in the past, so he’s another viable option should the midfield get thin.
Central Attacking Midfielder
This might as well be called “the Valeri position.” It’s not exactly a #10 creative piece, but it’s also not a pure #8 box-to-box duty. El Maestro is back on a new contract, and although he’s no longer a DP, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be starting in this spot.
Blanco will often push in from the wing and be another creator from the inside, giving Portland more options in attack. When Valeri’s out, he’s filled in well at this spot, too.
Conechny has shown flashes of his ability to lead the team from the attacking midfield—our best example being the 2-1 midweek loss at Montréal from last year in which a bunch of fringe-starters and T2 guys played. Conechny scored in this match, although Williamson occupied this position.
I put Bodily here because he’s a warm body that can play in the midfield. Maybe he get some Open Cup appearances.
- Sebástian Blanco
- Yimmi Chará
- Jeremy Ebobisse
- Marvin Loría
- Andy Polo
- Dairon Asprilla
- Tomás Conechny
- Eryk Williamson
I’ve grouped the wingers together because in Savarese’s offense they are essentially interchangeable. All of these guys can play on either side of the field, it’s just a matter of where they line up. In my lineups I’ve been putting Yimmi on the right and Blanco on the left for simplicity, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Gio swapped them.
As mentioned previously, both Yimmi and Seba tend to cut inside, while Jebo gets in the box more and the rest mostly stay out on the wing.
Blanco and Yimmi Chará will both start, and you could basically swap them at 1 and 2 if you wanted to. I expect 1-4 on this list to get playing time, though. While Loría only logged 700 MLS minutes last year, he’s still only 22 with plenty of upside—just needs more first-team minutes.
As for Polo and Asprilla, I have to think they’d really need to show improvement to see significant minutes. Portland added two DP attackers, and it always seemed like Polo and Asprilla were placeholders rather than preferred starters.
- Jarek Niezgoda
- Jeremy Ebobisse
- Felipe Mora
While we may end up with an aforementioned two-striker system, the pecking order seems to be like this. I expect all three of these players to get significant playing time this year, albeit in this order.
While I have doubts about Niezgoda’s ability to produce like Brian Fernández did, I’m remaining optimistic.
According to this Richard Farley article, Mora’s more of a “Hey, this guy is buried in the bench of a solid Mexican team, so we might as well add some quality depth at forward” (quote non-verbatim). I like this move, and while Mora has a “3” beside him on my depth chart, he’s more of a 1.5-2. When we’re tied or down late in a match, it’ll be nice to have someone other than Asprilla to bring on.
If I’ve learned anything from writing this, it’s that I am absolutely itching for the season to start. It’s a shame that the preseason matches in Costa Rica won’t be streamed, but I’ll see if I can piece together what goes on down there.
Dare I say… if we sign a backup right back, this will be the deepest Timbers squad we’ve seen since 2015, possibly ever.