On March 3, MLS will kick off its 23rd season featuring a new team in Los Angeles, a new stadium in DC, and new investments in first-teams and academies across the league that have raised the bar again.
1. Portland Timbers
What’s To Like: Despite losing two franchise cornerstones in Caleb Porter and Darlington Nagbe in November and December, Timbers fans are almost giddy for 2018.
There are a few reasons why. One is that Gio Savarese, brought in from the New York Cosmos to replace Porter, looks like the real deal – a bilingual coach with energy, ideas, and the same natural command that Porter himself showed when he took the reigns so memorably in 2013.
The other plus-note is that the roster – which was good enough to win the Western Conference last year before injuries derailed the team’s postseason – has been improved.
Nagbe might be gone, but ten starters are returning and the bench has been completely overhauled with young, TAM-level players who should log big minutes.
What’s Not To Like: The Timbers were hugely reliant on Diego Valeri last season, all the more so after Fanendo Adi went down in August, and while there’s no reason to believe Valeri won’t be great again in 2018, he also likely won’t score 21 goals.
Like Seattle, and though there certainly has been an infusion of youth, Portland’s best players are older and/or coming off of injuries. Valeri, Adi, Diego Chara, Liam Ridgewell all fall into that camp.
Injuries crushed both the team’s Supporters’ Shield hopes last year as well as their MLS Cup hopes, but the other big problem was defense – and between Jeff Attinella and Jake Gleeson, the goalkeeper spot is still unsettled.
We’ll also get a good idea fairly early of just how important Nagbe was for all he did for this team that didn’t show up in the boxscore – holding the ball, connecting passes, shifting the field, etc.
Watchability: Best in the Western Conference. Providence Park is still the gold standard for per-person passion in MLS, and the Timbers will play with intensity and verve.
In the booth, Jake Zivin and Ross Smith will comprise the club’s best broadcast team since the halcyon days of John Strong and Robbie Earle.
Projection: Savarese has waited a long time to jump into MLS, and his debut season is going to be worth watching. The Timbers will compete for the West title again.