There’s no way to sugarcoat it: The Portland Timbers’ 2019 season ended in bitter disappointment.
The Timbers limped down the homestretch playing poor soccer and, at one point, went 319 minutes without a goal, all at home. To make matters worse, contentious contract negotiations with star maestro Diego Valeri and off-the-field issues with record-signing Brian Fernandez hurt morale even more.
Now, it looks like the Timbers have plenty of rebuilding to do in the offseason, and the club can clearly use upgrades across the squad.
Timbers minority owner and CEO Merritt Paulson is acutely aware of these issues, as he made clear during an interview released Friday, but fans may be most concerned with Valeri, who has been the face of the team and the heart of the locker room over the years.
Paulson said the Timbers want him back and have an offer on the table, but it’s uncertain right now, even as the Timbers hope Valeri will accept.
“We want Diego back. I want him back, I’ve told him I want him back,” Paulson said, adding that coach Giovanni Savarese and general manager Gavin Wilkinson also have said the same.
“We’ve got an offer on the table to bring him back that is pretty similar to his current situation — it’s a multiyear offer. He’s been the highest-paid player on this team for his entire career dating back to 2013 when he got here.”
— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) October 25, 2019
“We also have to work within the realities of the MLS cap structure,” Paulson added. “It’s important that we do have flexibility and have flexibility with the DP spot. I’m cautiously optimistic but at the same time, I want him to be happy. He has to do what’s best for him and his family. But I’d love to see him back here.”
But whether Valeri leaves in the offseason or not, the Timbers need to make several changes all over the field.
The defense struggled at times this year, with both the fullbacks and center backs not showing well enough. The club’s wingers, aside from designated player Sebastian Blanco, who moved around the field, didn’t produce nearly enough. And up top, even though Jeremy Ebobisse, known in the club as Jebo, took a massive leap forward, the Timbers ran into a lack of depth, especially once Fernandez entered the MLS substance abuse treatment program.
Paulson said all of that will be addressed.
“We’ve already got terms basically agreed to with a young promising outside back or right back,” Paulson said. “Plans are to add a central defender. We’ll probably add a center midfielder.”
Paulson’s mention of a right back is notable because the Timbers relied a lot on Jorge Moreira, the right back who was given license to push up the field and pump balls into the box. In some games, it looked as if much of the team’s game plan hinged on Moriera’s crossing.
Moriera is on loan from River Plate, so Paulson’s comments may hint the Timbers won’t exercise their option to buy, or they are looking for a capable backup.
“And then moving to the attack, we need a productive winger — a right winger likely, scoring threat,” Paulson said.
That likely means that Andy Polo, who has struggled for the Timbers, will leave in the offseason. He had been the Timbers’ starting right winger until the acquisition of Fernandez, when the Timbers attack was shuffled around. But Polo has failed to make an impact as a starter and off the bench, registering just one goal and three assists in nearly 3,000 MLS minutes.
Dairon Asprilla, who is primarily a winger but as been used up top, is also a candidate to be released in the offseason. Although he has earned a reputation for scoring big goals in the playoffs, he has statistically been one of the worst finishers during the regular season in MLS over the years.
“And then we’re really thin at the forward position, with or without Brian right now,” Paulson said. “Jebo had a great year — one of the bright spots, and not singling him out, other players were bright spots — but we’ll add another forward as well.”
The big if is whether Fernandez does return. Fernandez can play both as a striker up top or as a winger.
Fernandez has said he voluntarily entered the league’s substance abuse treatment program to avoid the trouble he’s had in the past, which included being suspended from playing for two years due to cocaine use. But the Timbers reportedly built some exit clauses into their agreement to acquire Fernandez that could allow them to recoup some of the record transfer fee they paid for him.
“Everybody saw when he was himself what an electric player this guy is,” Paulson said. “He’s a different level type of difference maker.”
“We want him to become himself again and get better,” Paulson added. “Hopefully that can happen and hopefully he can be part of this club next year.”