PORTLAND, Ore. – When Eric Alexander joined the Portland Timbers halfway through the season last year, he knew he’d have to play his way onto the field through quality training sessions.
And this year, that truth couldn’t be more apparent.
Alexander is part of an extremely experienced and talented midfield – which runs practically two to three players deep at every position. And as the Timbers prepare for First Kick presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods against Philadelphia (March 12, 6:30 pm PT; ESPN2, 750 AM The Game / 940 AM La Pantera), Alexander said the competition in training for a starting spot couldn’t be more competitive.
“It’s really tough every day in training with so many good players at every position,” Alexander said. “It’s going to be interesting to see who plays. Whoever has the best trainings is probably going to be who plays. It’s tough every day, it’s really competitive but it’s good. It brings the best out in you.”
And head coach John Spencer has said just as much. In Portland, starting spots are going to be earned on the practice field and the competition up and down the roster will only make for better quality on game day.
But what that starting four at midfield will look like against Philadelphia is anybody’s guess.
If captain Jack Jewsbury and Designated Player Diego Chara are two pillars in the middle, then the two flanker spots are seemingly up for grabs. The addition of Franck Songo’o, who emerged as one of the team’s best players in the preseason with four assists in the four games he appeared in, and Alexander’s continued strong play has fueled the debate.
Songo’o’s preseason play seemed like it would be enough to earn a starting spot. But he suffered a knee injury during Portland’s Feb. 23 scrimmage against Oregon State and then returned to Spain to sort out visa issues, where he remains. Spencer expects him back with the team in the next few days, but that extended absence could open a spot for others.
That puts players like Kalif Alhassan, who made 27 starts and recorded six assists last year, and Sal Zizzo, who started 14 games last year but has been out this preseason after knee surgery, in the hunt.
“Everybody is trying to get a spot now,” Alhassan told the team's website. “So, everybody is trying to work on their stuff. I think I need to do more. Coach already knows what I can do, so I’m trying to do more so I can get a [starting] spot.”
And then there’s second-year player Darlington Nagbe, who can play midfield or forward. James Marcelin and Rodney Wallace, both of whom have recently represented their respective national teams, are also in the mix.
“It definitely keeps you on your toes,” Alexander said. “But it’s also good to get that extra encouragement to work hard every day in training to keep your spot. It’s good. It’s a good group of players, and it’s going to be a fun year.”
Even the players aren’t quite sure who will be on the field come game day.
“[Spencer] keeps it pretty close to the chest,” Alexander said. “And that’s OK. We don’t really have an idea.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.