T2 | Formation of Portland Timbers USL PRO club about creating "step in between" academy, first-team levels

PORTLAND, Ore. – As far as Gavin Wilkinson was concerned, there has been a hole in the Portland Timbers’ player-development structure.

Sure, they had the Timbers U-23s, the tip of an extensive academy program, and affiliations with regional clubs down the youngest youth levels. But there was something missing between the jump from the academy to the first-team. And with Tuesday’s announcement of the formation of Timbers 2, the club’s own USL PRO franchise, the Timbers general manager said there’s now something in place to bridge that divide.

“We wanted to bring the team in with the same playing philosophy, start to embody the culture of the club at a younger age and use it as a stepping stone to develop and scout players for the MLS team,” Wilkinson told MLSsoccer.com.

Wilkinson said their affiliation this year with eventual USL PRO champion Sacramento Republic FC was beneficial – resulting in the loans of seven players to the Northern California club – but also had its limits.

Wilkinson said the thinking behind creating their own third-tier franchise was the ability to control every aspect of player development.

“It didn’t affect enough players for us,” Wilkinson said of their relationship with Sacramento, who also had a partnership with the San Jose Earthquakes. “If we’re going to continue to move forward, we need to affect a broader base of players because from that broad base only a couple are going to make it to the MLS team, and we need to test as many players as possible.”

With Timbers 2, or T2, Wilkinson said players will be submerged in Timbers culture, on and off the field, at every level. The team’s coaching, training and operations staff will report directly to first-team head coach Caleb Porter, creating one identity from top to bottom of the player-development hierarchy.

“The jump from college to MLS is a big, big jump, and the jump to just club football anywhere around the world to playing professionally in MLS is a big, big step,” Wilkinson said. “Now we’ve got that step in between, which we can use this as an environment to test players.”

Wilkinson said at Tuesday’s press conference that they were close to hiring a Timbers 2 head coach, someone who he said is “used to winning.”

“To have the opportunity to control a USL team and collaborate with that team and have players come up and down is the model and structure you want,” Porter said after Tuesday’s training session at the team facility. “Fortunately we’re in a position where Merritt [Paulson, team owner] was able to make that happen. So it’s ideal. We’re a proper club in that regard, to have that infrastructure, so I’m really pleased.”

It’s a luxury not all teams in MLS enjoy – Portland joined the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake as the only clubs with their own USL PRO clubs.

Mike Golub, Timbers president of business operations, said the appetite for soccer in the Rose City makes the investment one that makes sense business-wise, as well.

“We are very grateful to be in such an amazing soccer market,” Golub told MLSsoccer.com. “The fact that there’s a huge scarcity for Timbers tickets, there’s a lot of warm feelings for our USL days among our supporters and people just love soccer at every level. So we’re hopeful that this model will appeal to a lot of our fans.”

The Timbers 2 will play at Merlo Field, a nearly 5,000-seat facility on the campus of University of Portland in North Portland. Golub said he expects Timbers 2 to be popular not only among fans who frequent first-team games but also new fans who aren’t able to attend matches at Providence Park.

“We constantly remind ourselves that we’re young and still very much in the mode of building our brand and creating more awareness and creating more Timbers fans,” Golub said. “That’s a never-ending process.”

The club also unveiled a unique new supporters element to the T2 team: The 1975 Trust--open only to the first 1,975 season ticket holders. The group will have a direct voice on team decisions such as what kits the team will wear for home and away matches, food and concession available on game days and more. 

For Paulson, creating a new T2 team and deepening the bond between the club and supporters will make the overall organization stronger on multiple levels.

"I think it's really going to be a big competitive advantage for us," said Paulson. "On the field, there's obviously a really compelling case to do this that, in my mind, justifies the investment we're making. Off-the-field, we're doing some really groundbreaking things from a supporters standpoint with The 1975 Trust."

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.