Portland Timbers need dramatic defensive improvement to return to MLS playoffs

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

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The Portland Timbers had a down year in 2016, remaining in playoff contention until the last day of the season before being routed by already-eliminated rival Vancouver, and losing the Cascadia Cup for good measure. Most Timbers fans will tell you that postseason hope was largely false, as the team struggled mightily throughout the season and failed to really show the form they had when they won MLS Cup the previous year.

Fortunately, the Timbers appear to be on a cycle where they’re mostly bad one year, and mostly good the next. Given that trend —and the additions of Sebastian Blanco and David Guzman in the offseason — it seems like a good bet the Timbers will be in the playoff running in 2017, and could be a bonafide MLS Cup contender once more.

Key facts

2016 record: 12-14-8, seventh place in the Western Conference

2016 playoffs: Did not qualify

Head coach: Caleb Porter

Key additions: David Guzman, Sebastian Blanco, Jeremy Ebobisse, Lawrence Olum

Key losses: Nat Borchers, Jack Jewsbury, Lucas Melano

Projected starting XI (4-2-3-1): Jake Gleeson; Vytas, Liam Ridgewell, Lawrence Olum, Alvas Powell; David Guzman, Diego Chara; Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco; Fanendo Adi

Major trophies won, all-time: 2015 MLS Cup

What we think of our team: The Timbers are ready to return to the playoffs and are potentially sporting the best midfield in the league, but there’s reason to be suspicious of the defense before they prove themselves.

What outsiders think of our team: “With the addition of Sebastian Blanco, they have the potential to have the best attack in the league coupled with the worst defense. If they're on TV, you will not want to miss their games.”

Portland Timbers’ biggest rival: With apologies to the Vancouver Whitecaps, the answer here is undoubtedly the Seattle Sounders. The Timbers-Sounders rivalry has a long history, reaching back to the early days of the original NASL, and continuing to produce compelling fixtures ever since. With two fan bases that always show up and always are looking to one-up each other, this leg of the Cascadia Cup is intense both on the field and in the stands.

Best social media follow: For a heart-warming follow you want Diego Valeri (@DiegoDv8 on Twitter), for a socially conscious follow rookie Jeremy Ebobisse (@kingjebo on Twitter) is your man, and for pictures of boats and golf courses Liam Ridgewell (@liam_ridgewell on Twitter) has got you covered.

Our season hinges on the defense improving. The Timbers had the worst defense in the Western Conference in 2016, so they will need to get their back six sorted out and their front four bought in before the team can make any sort of push back into playoff contention.

Why this year won’t be like last year: The Timbers have made a pair of big changes to their lineup in Guzman and Blanco that will drastically reshape how they play, bringing back the dynamic, free-flowing attack that made the team so dangerous from 2013 to 2015, and bringing back the "Porterball" era ethos of defending on the ball and dominating teams with possession.

Key player: Guzman. The Timbers' new Costa Rican No. 6 brings a defensive structure to the Timbers' midfield that will allow Diego Chara to roam free, win balls, and facilitate the attack in his more natural No. 8 role. Equally important, Guzman has so far shown to be an excellent distributor of the ball, both in retaining possession and in springing the attack from his position at the defensive midfield spot.

Projected finish in 2017: Fifth in the Western Conference.

Wild prediction: Darlington Nagbe will record double-digit assists in 2017, Diego Valeri will exceed a combined 20 goals and assists for the fourth time in five years, and Guzman will be Matt Doyle's pick for Newcomer of the Year but will be snubbed in favor of an attacking player.

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New Timbers pieces

There is little doubt about Guzman’s value to Portland defensive midfield setup. the jury is still out on Olum, but there are reasons for some optimism. I think Miller will be the key to the central backline upon his arrival. I look to him to pick up the most minutes behind Ridgewell (barring injury for either). Guzman may be the key player that determines overall Timbers success in 2017. I predict a very solid first-year with a nomination to MLS Newcomer list at season’s end buoyed by a 5 goal, 7 assist season. However, the over/under on his yellow card count is pegged at a lofty 7.5. Go Timbers!

Ridgewell is a joke for a TAM player…but at least he isn’t a DP anymore.

Caught ball watching against LA, he’s the reason we gave up that goal. From that, to him/Borchers in Vancouver in 2015 totally whiffing and blowing the lead in stoppage time (communication issues), the (dismissed) DUI…the number of bonehead moves is inexcusable from a guy who played in the EPL, who was a DP, and is a TAM player. To the point where ‘such a strong character’ couldn’t organize the backline to the tune of a single road win, or not worst GA in the west….I maintain my position that Borchers made Ridgewell look better than he is. Borchers was better than Ridgewell. We need two starting caliber CBs, and free up that TAM

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