2016 MLS season preview: Portland Timbers

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The defending MLS Cup champions will be looking to ride the momentum of last season's late surge into the new campaign.

2015 regular season: 3rd Western Conference (5th overall)

2015 playoffs: MLS Cup champions; 2-1 win over Columbus Crew SC

MLS Cup odds: 7/1

Players in: Chris Klute (Columbus Crew SC, trade), Zarek Valentin (Montreal Impact, trade), Ned Grabavoy (free agent), Jack McInerney (Columbus Crew SC, trade), Ben Polk (SuperDraft), Jermaine Taylor (Re-Entry Draft), Neco Brett (SuperDraft), Wade Hamilton (SuperDraft)

Players out: Andrew Weber (option declined), Jeanderson (option declined), Norberto Paparatto (option declined), Michael Nanchoff (option declined), Maximiliano Urruti (option declined), Rodney Wallace (out of contract), Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna, undisclosed), Will Johnson (Toronto FC, trade), George Fochive (Viborg, undisclosed)

The Portland Timbers were sitting outside the playoff places with three games of the 2015 regular season left, before a formation shift sparked a nine-match unbeaten run all the way to their first-ever MLS Cup title. The club have since sold starting left-back Jorge Villafana to Santos Laguna, lost super sub Maxi Urruti to the Re-Entry draft and seen winger Rodney Wallace leave on a free transfer, but the roster is certainly still strong enough to compete for a second successive championship.

Reasons to be positive

From goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey to physical front man Fanendo Adi, the Timbers are strong all over the pitch. Right-back Alvas Powell is a rising star, centre-backs Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell are a perfect pairing, Diego Chara, Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe make up a formidable midfield trio and Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla add plenty of quality on the wings. What’s more, there’s also an impressive amount of depth thanks to a mixture of new recruits like Ned Grabavoy, Jermaine Taylor, Chris Klute, Zarek Valentin and Jack McInerney and holdover such as Jack Jewsbury and Ben Zemanski.

Trouble on the horizon?

As deep as the Timbers’ squad may be, there is still some concern about how they will cope with the loss of some key players. McInerney should prove a perfect replacement for Urruti as the main backup striker, but the loss of Villafana will be harder to deal with considering he was arguably the best left-back in MLS over the second half of 2015. Any one of Taylor, Valentin or Klute could certainly be a capable successor, but it remains to be seen which of the new arrivals will get the nod at this stage. Having Asprilla and Melano also makes Wallace’s departure less of a blow, but in an ideal world, head coach Caleb Porter would have another starting-calibre winger at his disposal. One could reportedly be on the way soon, though, so watch this space.

Key man: Darlington Nagbe

While nobody has ever doubted Nagbe’s raw potential, an underwhelming 2014 season and similarly slow start to 2015 had many wondering if he was going to fulfil it. Once he was moved into a central role late last year, though, everything started to click. The 25-year-old midfielder became the driving force of Portland’s attack with his ability to draw out defenders, and while he only managed five goals and five assists on the season, the club definitely wouldn’t have won MLS Cup without him. Since establishing himself in the US national team setup after acquiring American citizenship, 2016 looks set to be a big year for the Liberian-born playmaker.

One to watch: Lucas Melano

A Designated Player signing last summer, Melano endured a somewhat slow start to his Timbers career but began to show his potential by the time the playoffs came around, finishing the year with two goals and four assists in 19 appearances – 12 as a starter. The 22-year-old Argentine forward is expected to be a regular in the line-up this term, and having arrived at PPL Park to high expectations, it’s hoped that can make the same kind of impact as compatriot and fellow ex-Lanus star Valeri has in MLS.

Predicted regular season finish: 3rd Western Conference

The Timbers stumbled on a winning formula late last season and still have the pieces in place to keep executing it this term. With Porter on the sidelines and a strong defence behind the likes of Nagbe, Valeri and Adi, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t hit the ground running in 2016.

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