2011 Portland Preview: Will quality match ambition?
The Tweet and Lowdown:
Timbers’ ascension to MLS fuels fire in Portland, where being part of first division is expected to buff and polish the 1970s nickname “Soccer City, USA.”
Setting the Scene:
Owner Merritt Paulson, general manager/technical director Gavin Wilkinson and head coach John Spencer have applied creativity and ambition to the task of building the Timbers roster from scratch while stoking excitement about a new era for soccer in Portland.
The team has sold more than 12,000 season tickets and it is reasonable to expect that every one of Portland’s home dates will sell out or come close to it. Wilkinson and Spencer have devoted themselves to putting together a roster capable of competing from First Kick, assembling players through drafts, trades and acquisitions from players overseas.
They have consistently pursued players with some MLS experience who are still early in their professional careers. Promising holdovers from Portland’s 2010 second-division team have been signed to complement that core group.
The Timbers have acquired almost every coveted player using all available avenues.
They got the players they wanted out of the Expansion Draft (Jeremy Hall via trade, Rodney Wallace, Eric Brunner, Peter Lowry, Adam Moffat, David Horst). They got the player they wanted in the MLS SuperDraft (Darlington Nagbe). They got the goalkeeper they wanted through a trade (Troy Perkins). They signed the American overseas they coveted (Kenny Cooper). And in the midst of preseason training, the Timbers added two key midfielders (Sal Zizzo and Jack Jewsbury).
Spencer has instilled a culture of professionalism and set the bar of expectations high.
Players in: Bright Dike (D-2 Timbers), Jeremy Hall (New York), Eddie Johnson (Austin Aztex, USSF D-2), Ryan Pore (D-2 Timbers), Rodney Wallace (D.C. United), Kalif Alhassan (D-2 Timbers), Mamadou Danso (D-2 Timbers), Kevin Goldthwaite (D-2 Timbers), James Marcelin (D-2 Timbers), Troy Perkins (D.C. United), Kenny Cooper (1860 Munich, Germany), Eric Brunner (Columbus), David Horst (Real Salt Lake), Adam Moffat (Columbus), Peter Lowry (Chicago), Darlington Nagbe (Univ. of Akron), Adin Brown (D-2 Timbers), Steve Purdy (D-2 Timbers), Sal Zizzo (Chivas USA), Freddie Braun (U-23 Timbers), Jake Gleeson (U-23 Timbers) Jack Jewsbury (Kansas City), Jorge Perlaza (Deportes Tolima, Colombia)
Players out: Steve Cronin (D.C. United)
Star Attraction: Kenny Cooper
The 6-foot-3, 26-year-old forward is one of the top homegrown goalscorers in the US. He scored 40 goals in 90 games with FC Dallas (2006-09) but was less effective during a year-and-a-half in Europe that was marred by injury.
In Portland, Cooper seeks to kick his career back into high gear and play even better than he did when he was at Dallas. He has accepted the huge responsibility of becoming the face of the franchise and has demonstrated his intent to lead through action.
Cooper stays on the practice field, by himself, for an extra 30 minutes or more, pounding shots into the net and working on his craft.
Unsung Hero: Steve Purdy
While the team waits and hopes to resolve the legal issues that have prevented former Arsenal youth product Kerrea Gilbert from arriving from England, Purdy has held down the right back position during the preseason and been a standout.
With each passing day it seems that Gilbert is fading from Portland’s picture. The way Purdy has been playing, the Timbers have no reason to fret over Gilbert’s absence. Purdy has limited MLS experience – just five appearances with FC Dallas in 2009 – but appears ready for a productive season in Portland. He played 24 games with the USL Timbers in 2010.
Ready for Primetime: Darlington Nagbe
The No. 2 SuperDraft pick saw his training interrupted to have a sports hernia surgery, which is expected to sideline him for two to four weeks. But Nagbe said he is eager to return and hasn’t ruled his availability to play in the season-opener at Colorado.
The Hermann Trophy winner has impressed the coaching staff with his first touch and ability to hold possession and Spencer has repeatedly said he sees Nagbe’s future in the midfield. So while he may not be a big-time goalscorer, his talents could prove crucial to the Timbers’ bottom line.
Storylines to Watch:
There is considerable buzz in Portland over the re-start of the Timbers as a member of North America’s top league. From a flashy jersey unveiling to an attention-grabbing billboard campaign to announcements about a new training facility and youth development academies, the Timbers have been building a wave of momentum for months.
All of that could pale in comparison to a game-time atmosphere that promises to be second-to-none in the league.
Of course, with any newly assembled roster, issues of chemistry and overall ability are paramount. So far, the Timbers appear seaworthy as they prepare for their maiden voyage in MLS.
If the Cascadia Summit proved anything it is that the renewed Northwest rivalries – particularly between the Timbers and Seattle Sounders FC – give the league a blood-boiling tension worthy of paying attention to.
Lastly, there is precedence for a Timbers outfit being capable on Day One. In 1975, a group of lads from south central England taught Portland-area residents what soccer was, then drew unheard of crowds topping 30,000 and advanced all the way to Soccer Bowl ’75.
What He Said:
“We’re not overconfident because anything that’s worth having doesn’t come easy. The league has good quality teams. We need to prove that the coaching staff’s belief in this group matches our ambitions on the field.”
– Head coach John Spencer
If Everything Goes Right:
Portland entered the final weekend of preseason unbeaten in seven matches, somewhat surprising for a group of players that met for the first time in mid January.
If the Timbers can avoid injuries, there is enough experience and hunger with this group to keep surprising more established MLS clubs. It’s too early to tell where the ceiling is or whether it may even include a playoff appearance.
In Year One, Portland’s fans are going to reward effort with adoration. In that respect, “everything goes right” may be measured in sellouts.