In a season marred by dark clouds for the Portland Timbers both on and off the field, it might be hard to find the little glimmers of sunshine. At the end of the 2022 campaign, the Cascadia club found themselves with a record of 11 wins, 13 draws, and 10 losses. In soccer terms - bang average. However, through a season of off-field turmoil and spells of painful on-field performances, there are still some positives for the PTFC faithful to takeaway - and here are three.
Young Players Shining
As Major League Soccer (MLS) continues to head into its formative years as a developmental league, players have joined at a young age, been developed by their clubs, and then ultimately leave for greener pastures, and a big pile of cash. It’s for reasons like this the recruitment of prospective first team players has become key throughout the league, with talents like Brendan Aaronson, Tyler Adams, Ricardo Pepi, and Matt Turner all making big moves to some of Europe’s top leagues after getting their starts in MLS.
For the Timbers, young players like Santiago Moreno, David Ayala, and Zac McGraw, who are all 25-years-old or younger, have proven themselves as potential key members of the club’s future. Moreno, who contributed seven goals and seven assists last season, has shown flashes of brilliance on the wing, albeit as a part of a rather lackluster Timbers attacking force. The 22-year-old Colombian has often been a spark plug for the team’s attacking threat, outshining ‘designated players’ such as Yimmi Chará and Jaroslaw Niezgoda. If the Timbers are to kick on and rejoin the truly elite Western Conference clubs in the coming season, the chances are Moreno will be at the heart of the revolution.
David Ayala on the other hand is greener than his Colombian counterpart, joining the Timbers in February from Argentine club Estudiantes de la Plata, signing a contract with the team through 2025. While the 20-year-old has only made 18 appearances for the club this season, he has shown the ability to run a midfield at the MLS level - an important trait for a player who his poised to be the long term replacement for club legend Diego Chará in the center of the park. Speaking after wrapping Ayala’s signing in the winter, Timbers manager Giovanni Savarese had this to say on the Argentine, “His talent will strengthen us and make us more competitive. He shows great potential to grow as a player, and we feel Portland will be a great environment for him.” And while his impact has perhaps not been as immediate as had the team had hoped, his role in the side will only grow in the coming years as the Timbers learn to cope with Chará’s eventual departure.
Then there is Zac McGraw, a player who has proven himself to be a useful tool for the Timbers organization should they choose to invest their time and money into youth development at the club. The center-back pairing of Larrys Mabiala and Dario Župarić has been a solid pairing for Giovanni Savarese for a number of years now, but with the two defenders seeing age and injuries catch up with them, the Timbers boss may be looking elsewhere for the future of his defence. McGraw, 25, has been shuffled back and forth between the Timbers 2 and the Timbers first team since 2020, but his emergence in the 2022 season will be seen as a huge positive in Goose Hollow. While only making 9 starts in 2022 McGraw has made the most of his time on the pitch, showing a mixture of raw talent, and MLS level defending - not to mention putting in a man of the match performance against Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders in a 2-1 home victory for the Timbers. With a cool-headed potential partner in Bill Tuiloma, the Timbers could have a combination able to lock down their central defensive pairing for years to come.
The Foundation For A Winning Team Is There
While a record of 11 wins, 13 draws, and 10 losses and a goal difference of zero through the 34 game season is painfully average, it does tell you one thing - the Timbers lack game changers. The previously mentioned Yimmi Chará and Jaroslaw Niezgoda only combined for 13 of the 53 goals the team scored in 2022, despite being the team’s ‘designated players’ in attack. Luckily for the Timbers, it only takes one quality transfer window to revolutionize your squad, as we’ve seen with clubs like LAFC recently. While heavily criticized, MLS roster rules do allow you to refresh a cycle of players quickly.
With the youngsters mentioned in the previous section, the late-season addition of promising Colombian right-back Juan David Mosquera, and a handful of players who have proven to be high-level MLS players throughout the 2022 campaign, such as Eryk Williamson (perhaps the team’s most talented player when fit), Bill Tuiloma, Claudio Bravo, and Aljaž Ivačič, this Timbers squad could only be a few signings of game-changing players away from truly competing. I won’t even begin to speculate on who the club could potentially bring in, but a combination of seven to eight MLS level squad players, and two to three game changers could elevate this team to a new level. This shift in approach depends on one key factor however - the Timbers’ front-office being able to move the deadwood on and replace those players with upgraded quality.
Cascadia Cup Victory
Finally, winning Cascadia Cup for the first time since 2017 will likely go down as the highlight of the season for the Timbers faithful. Completing a series sweep over bitter rivals Seattle, and lifting the local trophy in front of a packed out North End will not be a memory lost by the fans for some time to come. The trophy itself may not be understood, or valued outside of the Pacific Northwest, but amongst the gloomy atmosphere surrounding the club, it will be the shining moment.
Not only did the Timbers avoid losing to either of their neighbors in the four matchups, but they thoroughly outplayed Seattle in both fixtures, and helped to sink the club’s chances of post-season play this season - adding a cherry on top of the cup-winning cake. For the youngsters in the squad, a moment like that will be one to take into next season as they look to climb back up the ladder towards the elite MLS clubs.