From Accra to Portland, Alhassan's football journey
Portland Timbers supporters were first introduced to Kalif Alhassan, a talented, young 20-year-old midfielder, during the Timbers’ final handful of matches of the second-division era. The Ghanaian made a quick impact with a game-winning, 30-yard chip in stoppage time past the sprawled-out arms of Puerto Rico Islanders’ goalkeeper Bill Gaudette during a 1-0 win on Sept. 18, 2010 – one month after being signed by the Timbers.
All told, Alhassan tallied two goals in six regular-season matches (three starts) with the USSF D-2 Timbers. He also started both first-round playoff matches against Vancouver, but it was the quick glimpses of attacking ability and confidence that prompted the Timbers to keep him around for the inaugural MLS season.
A native of Accra, Ghana in West Africa, where he played in the Ghanaian GLO Premier League with the Liberty Professionals--once home to Asamoah Gyan and Michael Essien--Alhassan was signed as part of the Timbers’ MLS roster and quickly displayed enough hard work and composure to earn playing time in four of Portland’s first five league contests — including his first MLS start on April 2 against the New England Revolution.
While the most oft-quoted adjustment for foreign players entering MLS is to navigate the league’s apparent lack of technical skill, faster speed and physicality of play, Alhassan said MLS is a more technical league than most in Africa.
“In Africa soccer is different,” he said. “Here it is a little bit more technical. In Africa, you play strong and you don’t always have time to control the ball because you always have to kick it in (to the attacking zone).”
In all of his play this season — including three straight starts in midfield — Alhassan has shown plenty of confidence taking on defenders while forging that link between the defense and forwards.
“I think that comes from where he’s been brought up as a player. He’s been brought up in the streets of Africa playing the game and he probably doesn’t fear anybody that he’s playing against,” head coach John Spencer said. “He doesn’t have a fear of playing against Landon Donovan or David Beckham. He has that confidence in his ability to play in big games.”
Spencer made duly sure to add a caveat to his statement.
“To call someone a creative player, there’s got to be an end product there.”
Recently, that end product has arrived for Alhassan. A team-high three assists in his last two games, has seen the young winger ratchet up his on-field production, much to the pleasure of Timbers fans and Spencer.
A perfectly weighted pass by Alhassan on the left flank connected with forward Jorge Perlaza’s well-timed run helped Portland open the scoring during Thursday’s 4-2 home-opening win. Alhassan’s persistence on the ball allowed him to draw in defenders and open up space on Sunday as he slipped passes to Jack Jewsbury and Rodney Wallace for goals.
“In the last month he’s really changed his whole mentality to being a professional,” Spencer said following Alhassan’s two-assist performance in Sunday’s 3-2 win over FC Dallas. “He realizes when we don’t have the ball you can’t just play one way. (Tracking back defensively) is what Kalif struggled with at the start and now he realizes that it doesn’t matter how good you are, you’ve got to get back behind the ball.”
Quiet and modest, Alhassan – who makes up part of a solid core of young Timbers players in their early 20s, including Jake Gleeson and Darlington Nagbe – discussed his confidence on the ball by directing it back on the team.
“It’s all about the game,” he said. “We need to keep possession, so I try to keep the ball any time I have it. ... If we lose possession then the pressure comes on us. The more we keep the ball, the more we win possession, the better chance we have of winning the game.”