Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Portland Timbers

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

Portland failed in 2012, and they know it. From the moment owner Merritt Paulson fired coach John Spencer, he set about making it clear to fans: Last season – a year in which he’d asked for a playoff appearance – was not acceptable. While Portland was only four points out of a playoff spot at the time of Spencer’s departure, the Timbers spent the rest of the season near the bottom of the west preparing for the arrival of Caleb Porter.

Change is already evident in Portland. There’s no air of disappointment lingering from last season. Instead, a new coach and an entirely different approach has restored the optimism. They may not be saying it out loud, but for the second year in a row, the Timbers plan to compete for the postseason.

Here are three (of many) questions they’ll need to answer this winter if they’re going to make waves:

  • Can Porter adapt?

On Tuesday, former Zip Darlington Nagbe was asked if he was having flashbacks to college training. Surprisingly, he said no. All of the drills Portland’s done this week are brand new to the somebody who played under Porter at Akron.

So Porter’s already adjusting. Whether that translates to wins is all that matters, something we won’t know until (at least) March, even if early returns are encouraging. The Timbers are training like a team ready to play to the strengths of Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, and Diego Chara. That fit may ultimately be the magic that justifies Porter’s hype.

  • Is Diego Valeri worth the label?

We’ve seen a lot of Designated Players come and go, most of which haven’t met the expectations that come with the label. We should adjust our views on the high-priced talents, but still, when you hear a team is bringing in a new designated player, you rightfully assume they think very highly of him.

And so we have Portland’s Argentinine import Diego Valeri, a loanee from Lanus brought in to orchestrate the attack. Even on the nights he can’t generate goals, he’s doing to be tasked with managing a possession-based passing game that should take pressure off the defense.

As with Porter, early returns are encouraging, but on an expensive loan deal (and with little pedigree outside of Argentina to recommend him one way or another), fans would be right to reserve judgment. In case you missed it, the last DP didn’t work out so well.

  • Can Darlington Nagbe reach his potential?

We don’t even know where he’ll play, so it’s hard to predict what he’ll do in 2013, but with the acquisition of Valeri, Nagbe looks set to assume a more goal-scoring role. He started in one last season when John Spencer paired him with Kris Boyd up top in a 4-4-2, but when Gavin Wilkinson took over and switched to a 4-3-3, Nagbe had to orchestrate the transition.

While he’s capable of doing that, Nagbe is the Timbers’ best goal scorer. His skill and instincts in the penalty area (along with the acquisition of Valeri) suggest he should be moved back forward. Given the paucity of scoring threats on Portland’s rost, the move’s almost necessary if the Timbers are going to score enough goals.

If the chance produces a much-needed double-digit goal scorer, Portland will have solved their biggest problem.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: Real Salt Lake

Premier League clubs vote VAR into use for 2019-20 season

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It’s been inevitable for quite some time, but now it’s official: video review will be used in the Premier League when the 2019-20 season kicks off next August.

[ MORE: Fulham hire Claudio Ranieri after firing Slavisa Jokanovic ]

20 of 20 current PL clubs voted on Thursday to confirm the use of the modern technology beginning next season.

The Bundesliga and Serie A began using the video assistant referee (VAR) at the start of the 2017-18 season, and have continued (successful) operation of the system in 2018-19. Major League Soccer introduced the protocol two-thirds of the way through its 2017 season, to far greater degrees of varying success. La Liga is set to begin use of VAR next season as well.

[ MORE: England vs. USMNT preview ]

VAR was first used in the English game last season, when select FA Cup fixtures were used as test runs, while the same is being done in the EFL Cup this season.

Chelsea expected to let Cahill leave on loan in January

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Gary Cahill is no longer first-choice at Chelsea — anything but, in fact, as he’s played just 21 minutes in the Premier League this season — and the club is prepared to allow its captain to leave on loan in January as a reward for six years of excellent service, according to a report from the Guardian.

[ MORE: Fulham hire Claudio Ranieri after firing Slavisa Jokanovic ]

New Blues boss Maurizio Sarri has used Cahill sparingly thus far — even leaving him out of the 18-man team for Sunday’s draw with Everton — but has praised the 32-year-old for his professionalism and influence as a valued member inside the locker room. For those reasons, Sarri is prepared to do right by one of the club’s most senior members as Cahill seeks regular first-team minutes.

[ MORE: England vs. USMNT preview ]

Cahill’s current contract is set to expire in the summer of 2020, thus a loan in January and an ensuing permanent transfer this coming summer represents the club’s final opportunity to recoup a small fee for a player who will surely garner plenty of interest from within the PL. Having paid under $9 million to sign him from Bolton in January 2012, Chelsea have gotten pretty good value for their initial investment, including two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup, and one Champions League and Europa League title each during Cahill’s spell at the club.

U.S. U-20 men one win from World Cup

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One win.

That’s all the United States’ U-20 men’s national team will need to advance to this summer’s World Cup in Poland and the Pan-American Games in Peru.

[ MORE: Surgery for Mendy ]

The Yanks cruised through group play with a nearly perfect nine days of soccer, the closest of five wins a 6-1 defeat of Trinidad and Tobago.

Competition is a bit tougher in the knockout stage, but Costa Rica and Honduras did the U.S. a massive solid by drawing 1-1 in their opener.

Now Tab Ramos’ kids can qualify for the World Cup with a defeat of Costa Rica on Friday or Honduras on Monday.

The top two teams in each group qualify for Poland, while the Group A winner advances to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship to face the winner of Group B (Mexico, El Salvador, or Panama).

The U.S. has spread the scoring around, lead by 17-year-old Ulysses Lainez of LA Galaxy II (six goals). His former Galaxy Academy buddy, Alexis Mendez of Freiburg has five goals, as does Toronto FC 18-year-old Ayo Akinola.

Atlanta United sits atop Forbes’ list of most valuable MLS franchises

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Atlanta United came up just short of the Supporters’ Shield, but it’s off-the-field success is No. 1 with a bullet.

Giving high marks to attendance and merchandise sales, Forbes places the Five Stripes atop its list of the most valuable franchises in Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: Surgery for Mendy ]

United sits first, with a valuation of $330 million. Both Atlanta and the second place Galaxy have valuations ahead of the two-least valuable teams combined (Columbus and Colorado). And the Five Stripes are worth twice the individual values of those teams and Vancouver. Full list here, from Forbes.com:

“Last season, average home-game attendance was 48,200, and this year the team is drawing over 50,000 fans per game. In just two seasons Atlanta has already laid claim to the league’s eight best-attended games ever, and nine of the top eleven.”

The margins are fine, relatively speaking, with Atlanta’s advantage over second place LA Galaxy by $10 million. Seattle is third at $310m, with newcomers LAFC at $305m, and Toronto FC at $290m.