Portland, OR (SportsNetwork.com) - The Portland Timbers will open the new season at Providence Park on March 8 looking to build upon a stellar campaign under debut head coach Caleb Porter.
After a number of disappointing seasons, Portland entered the last term at a pivotal point in the franchise's history. The appointment of Porter was a bit of a gamble given his lack of head coaching experience, but it paid of in spades as the Timbers finished atop the Western Conference and just two points off the MLS Supporters' Shield.
Now the Rose City club has its sights set on something bigger: silverware.
Portland has added a couple of pieces to its squad in order to achieve that goal, signing the likes of Steve Zakuani and Gaston Fernandez to bolster the attack. But because so many players are returning from last year's roster, Porter has minimal work to do in terms of getting the team to jell.
"It's getting them up to speed and getting the little connections built and the understanding, all those little things just take time to come together," Porter told MLSsoccer.com from Arizona. "It's been very smooth. ... With the new guys, it's a matter of them getting on track and getting up to speed with us, but because we don't have a ton of new pieces it makes it a lot easier."
Porter singled out Fernandez, saying that the Argentine has meshed with the Timbers quite rapidly.
"Gaston has been probably the quickest transition," the Timbers boss continued. "He's been in an environment where they play and train in a style that is very similar, and I think with the role he's had and how he's used to playing and some of his strengths, he's fit in immediately. And I think because we have some guys around him that he can connect with, I think he enjoys that."
While Porter rates his new acquisitions highly, it may be the return of playmaker Diego Valeri that has the greatest impact on the season.
Valeri, MLS' reigning Newcomer of the Year, has been recovering from offseason surgery for a sports hernia, an injury that halted his progression at the tail end of 2013. But the midfielder managed to feature in Portland's preseason loss to the San Jose Earthquakes and received nothing but praise from his head coach.
"The nice thing is he looks himself," Porter told media members after the game. "He's still getting back in sync. He just started training (two weeks ago) so he's got only two training sessions under his belt. So getting him back in a flow and a rhythm with our team is going to take a little bit of time."
The Timbers seem to have all the pieces necessary to make something meaningful of the 2014 season.
They have powerful defenders in Pa Modou Kah and Futty Danso along with Michael Harrington, who likes to get forward and join the attack.
Jack Jewsbury and Will Johnson are Portland's engine, spurring the team on with industry and leadership, while Valeri pulls the strings for Fernandez, Maximiliano Urruti and Darlington Nagbe to get the Timbers on the scoreboard.
They are anchored at the back by goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who has enjoyed a career revival upon his move to Portland in 2012.
And to top it all off, the club boasts one of the most intimidating atmospheres in North American soccer - the Timbers took a total of 38 points out of a possible 51 from its home matches last season, tied with San Jose for the MLS-high.
Portland certainly figures to be a force in 2014.
ADDITIONS: Steve Zakuani (M), Gaston Fernandez (F).
LOSSES: Ryan Johnson (F), Sal Zizzo (M), Mikael Silvestre (D).
OUTLOOK: The sky is the limit for Portland in 2014. The club is capable of winning either (or both) the Supporters' Shield or MLS Cup given how close it came in Porter's first year at the helm. The Timbers are loaded with talent on all fronts and have the depth to cope with injuries over the course of the season. It is known that Portland can beat any team in the league, but turning draws into wins is what will push the club over the hump in 2014. Last term saw the Timbers play to an MLS-high 15 draws in the regular season while losing an MLS-low five games. Turning just two of those draws into wins would have been enough to see the club clinch the Supporters' Shield. The Timbers certainly have the capability to win silverware in 2014, but they will need to be a bit more cognizant that throwing caution to the wind in search of the victory can be more beneficial than settling for a draw.