Here we are at the start of a new Major League Soccer season. Columbus Crew SC can put 2015 behind them and focus on 2016 beginning Sunday.
The memories of a heartbreaking defeat in the MLS Cup Final may come creeping back in the opening fixture, as the Black & Gold travel out west to take on the Portland Timbers, the team that defeated Crew SC 2-1 at MAPFRE Stadium in December to take home the championship.
But it is a new year and that means what it's in the past is in the past. Columbus' focus is on this year and reaching new heights with the new season.
After the successful seasons a year ago of the two opponents on Sunday, there is not a ton that has changed. To see what's new in Portland, we talked with Will Conwell, managing editor of SB Nation's Timbers site Stumptown Footy to get an idea of what to expect from this contest.
Questions for Stumptown Footy
Massive Report: It was likely too painful for many Crew SC fans to follow the Timbers offseason. Can you give a quick overview of the changes to the team heading into 2016?
Stumptown Footy: Well, with two important exceptions, the Portland Timbers of today look very much like the Portland Timbers of four months ago. The Timbers retained nine of their eleven starters, including every player in the spine of the team, and in fact just signed Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara to new contracts this week.
What changes there are come on the left side of the pitch. Left back Jorge Villafana was sold to Santos Laguna for a cool $1 million, where he has since continued his good work, assisting in the CONCACAF Champions League demolition of the LA Galaxy; and left midfielder Rodney Wallace decided to try his luck overseas, joining Portuguese side Arouca.
The Timbers' replacements for the pair should be familiar to Crew fans. Speedster Lucas Melano has shifted over to the left flank and made it his own for the 2016 season and the Timbers have brought in defender Chris Klute from the Crew as another potential project at left back. Of course, there were issues with Klute's recovery from an offseason meniscus surgery, so Crew fans won't have to worry about facing him on Sunday, but he remains the left back of the future for the Timbers.
Other important losses for the Timbers include Will Johnson and Maximiliano Urruti, who went to Toronto FC and FC Dallas, respectively. Notable additions include Jermaine Taylor from the Houston Dynamo, Ned Grabavoy from New York City FC, and Jack McInerney from the Crew.
MR: It's one thing to climb to the mountain top, it's another to stay there. What are a few reasons you believe Portland will have the same hunger and be able to repeat as champions this season?
SF: Since joining the Timbers in MLS back in 2013, Caleb Porter has put together teams that tend to peak at the end of the season, ramping up at just the right time to make a deep run into the playoffs. When the team has any sort of success early in the season, like they did in 2013 and 2015, this approach works great. When the team stumbles in the early going, like they did in 2014, not so much.
This year, the Timbers are coming into the season healthy and hungry, with none of the injuries that held them back in the early going over the last two years. Specifically, we are talking about Diego Valeri here. For all the contributions of Fanendo Adi and Darlington Nagbe, "The Maestro" is the fulcrum of the Timbers attack; they can be good without him, but they are great with him.
In early 2014, Valeri was still recovering from an offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. In early 2015, Valeri was still recovering from the torn ACL that he suffered in the final match of the previous year. This year all that Valeri is still recovering from is celebrating winning the MLS Cup.
MR: Not to bring up a sore subject with Black & Gold fans reading, but the strategy to press Columbus all over the field and not let the team build and possess out of the back worked in MLS Cup. Do you expect some of the same in this game even though there aren't the same ramifications?
SF: In short, yes.
The Timbers' high press was dramatically illustrated by Diego Valeri's opening goal in the MLS Cup, but that was far from the first time the Timbers ran out that particular approach.
Around Portland, much has been made of Caleb Porter's evolution as a coach since joining MLS. Under his guidance the Timbers changed from the idealistic "Porterball" of 2013 to the direct, smash and grab tactics being deployed at the end of 2014, and ended 2015 looking like a tactically flexible side capable of bringing any number of approaches, depending on their opposition.
The Timbers, as much as any team in MLS, will look to tailor their approach to their opposition: smothering them with possession, hitting them on the counter, or just looking to catch them with the ball in their own end.
Of course, Porter and company have been caught out by the tactics of others as well, particularly when a team takes an entirely new approach to a match. Against the Orlando City SC last season the Timbers were taken apart by Kaka as the Lions entirely changed the flow of their midfield, opening up spaces and going up 2-0 on the (injury ravaged) Timbers in Providence Park before they could adjust. More recently, the Timbers lost 2-0 to the Chicago Fire in the preseason when Valjko Paunovic's side ran out the first true 5-3-2 that the Timbers have faced in MLS.
Click here to read the Massive Report perspective and answers to Will's questions at Stumptown Footy.