By Peter Pietrangelo

The Bulletin

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1st training session: Saturday in Portland

1st preseason game: Jan. 31 at FC Tucson

1st preseason home game: Feb. 21 vs. Minnesota United

Merritt Paulson did not want to make any headlines during an informal question-and-answer session with local Portland Timbers fans Sunday night.

The Timbers owner and CEO, who had been in the news last week for saying United States men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann had an “anti-MLS agenda,” was content to reminisce about the Timbers’ 2015 MLS Cup victory and their prospects for the future.

“I’m a little more high profile than I should be,” Paulson admitted. “Caleb (Porter, the Timbers coach) should be the face, and we have some legitimate stars on the team.”

Even so, Paulson, who purchased the franchise in 2007 and led the effort to bring the Timbers to Major League Soccer in 2011, is one of the more open and accessible owners in the league — meeting a few dozen supporters over beer at Sidelines Bar & Grill in downtown Bend, for example — and gave an inside look at some of the Timbers’ offseason dealings.

The most newsworthy offseason development is the surprising departure of starting winger Rodney Wallace, who last month scored in the Timbers’ 2-1 win over Columbus to win the franchise’s first MLS trophy.

“I knew that most of the guys that left were leaving, but I really thought we would be able to bring back Rodney,” said Paulson, who added that Wallace will be looking outside the United States to play next season. “We offered him a good deal. No hard feelings whatsoever. Obviously he had a great playoffs, and he was a great locker room guy. … I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back with us sometime in the future.”

A replacement will be coming, and Paulson said the Timbers are in “advanced negotiations with three or four” options at left wing — though that replacement might not be put into the starting lineup with young wingers Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla beginning their second years with the team. Asprilla scored what might have been the Timbers’ goal of the year, a screaming kick from outside the right corner of the box in the Timbers’ 3-1 win over FC Dallas in the first leg of the Western Conference final. And Melano, a midseason transfer worth a reported $5 million, scored the series-clinching goal in stoppage time in the second leg against Dallas.

“When that (transfer) number came out, that put a lot of pressure on Melano,” Paulson said. “The things Melano did, the way defenses play us because of his speed … Melano will be an important player for us this year. Melano, and Asprilla are going to be new guys for us — their ceiling is really, really high.”

In typical Paulson fashion, he teased upcoming announcements about a bar being installed in the Timbers’ home stadium, Providence Park, a new kit promotion for the upcoming season (for Timbers jerseys that don’t have a champion’s star over the crest), and an international signing for T2, the Timbers’ reserve team, just completed Sunday.

With just seven weeks between the MLS Cup final on Dec. 6 and this Saturday’s first day of training for the upcoming season, the offseason has seen a flurry of transactions (and that’s not including the National Women’s Soccer League’s Portland Thorns, also owned by Paulson, who have made a lot of transactions this offseason — and Paulson teased another big announcement coming later this week). Gone are Wallace, starting left back Jorge Villafana (sold to Mexican club Santos Laguna), former captain Will Johnson (traded to Toronto FC) and striker Maximiliano Urruti (selected by FC Dallas in MLS re-entry draft) Villafana started 33 MLS regular-season games last year and will be replaced by new signees Zerek Valentin, an American who has spent the past three seasons with Norwegian club Bodo/Glimt, and Chris Klute, who played for Columbus in MLS last season.

“When you win a title, and everybody’s bonuses kick in, it’s tough to make the (salary) cap,” Paulson said. “But if you look at Villafana and (not-returning Brazilian backup) Jeanderson versus Klute and Valentin, we have a really, really solid back line.”

Also incoming are MLS veteran midfielder Ned Grabavoy, who will replace the box-to-box work of Johnson, and 23-year-old Jack McInerney, who will be on his fourth MLS team.

“If you look at what Maxi did, McInerney is a very similar kind of player,” Paulson said. “And he’s scored more than Maxi.”

Paulson was in Central Oregon to speak Monday night at the Gala at The Riverhouse, a fundraiser for the High Desert Museum. Paulson, 42, serves on the board of directors for the Oregon Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and Panthera, a nonprofit that protects wild cats worldwide, and said “it will be my first speech in nine years that I wasn’t talking about soccer or the growth of soccer.”

— Reporter: ppietrangelo@bendbulletin.com .

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