For a team that had to be remade in the offseason, the 2019 version of Timbers 2 has a very familiar feel. The teams on-field shape is still the same, if the tactics, while evolving, are a little different. Some of the names across the back shoulders will be the same, too, with the close ties between the Portland Timbers’ Major League Soccer and United Soccer League teams destined to persist. Coming off the first postseason appearance in team history, T2 seems ready to pick up where they left off.
“It’s just making sure we’re prepared, as much as we can,” head coach Cameron Knowles says, when asked what dominates his mind in the days before kickoff. On Saturday, T2 visits Tulsa, Oklahoma, to begin the 2019 USL season (5pm PT, Timbers2.com), with little beyond scheduling known about this season’s opponents.
“It’s difficult to get a sense of the opposition,” Knowles admits. “We don’t have the benefit of seeing games streamed, or TV, or whatnot. It takes a couple of weeks before you see what teams in the league are doing with their players. There’s a little bit of unknown with that.”
The knowns for Knowles ahead of the first of his 34 league games are his players. Gone are a series of 2018 mainstays who have moved on to other clubs, players like midfielder Andre Lewis, winger Jack Barmby, fullback Jimmy Mulligan, goalkeeper Alex Mangels and defender Lamar Batista. Those players ranked second, seventh, eighth, 11th and 12th in minutes played on the team last season.
The new names will be just as important, if at the moment, less known. Goalkeeper Jake Leeker has been brought in from Real Monarchs after making 17 starts in his first professional season. There are high hopes for former Timbers U-23s midfielder player Todd Wharton as he steps into Lewis’ role, while 21-year-old Zach Kobayashi has been brought north from Orange County SC, where the ex-Dinamo Zagreb and FC Basel product scored four goals last season. The MLS team’s first-round draft pick, forward Ryan Sierakowski, could play a vital part, too.
Then there are the holdovers, which not only include USL-signed players like defenders Max Ornstil, Harold Hanson, Arturo Diz Pe and Nathan Smith. Electing to go with a small USL-only roster this season, T2 will rely on reinforcements from above and below. That means an even greater commitment from MLS talents as well as more opportunities for Timbers academy prospects – the system’s next Carlos Anguianos.
“The help from [Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese] to get the bulk of those guys in training was big today,” Knowles said, the day before the team left for Tulsa, “to get across some of those things and build some of those relationships in the small window of time that we have (was important).”
A couple of regulars from last year’s team, Renzo Zambrano and Marvin Loría, could still see significant time with T2 despite being signed to MLS deals. Likewise, Homegrown players like Marco Farfan and Foster Langsdorf will continue to have a significant USL presence, as will central defender Modou Jadama, who played a vital role in Knowles’ central defense last season. Eryk Williamson’s return from Portugal gives Knowles a potential focal point in the middle, while Tomás Conechny is also on the USL team’s radar. Just as other Timbers throughout the season, those first-team players will be asked to further their development with T2.
All of that mirrors 2018, a season the organization sees as “a really good benchmark,” according to Knowles. What’s changed, though, are the new talents, with names going beyond Leeker, Wharton and Kobayashi. Among the most high-profile acquisitions, the team has again pursued options in the international transfer market, bringing in Venezuelan forward Brayan Hurtado and Argentine attacker Cristian Ojeda on loan.
It’s a formula that proved hit-and-miss last year, with Loría blossoming into an MLS asset while Honduran Darixon Vuelto quickly returned home. Those possibilities are why players are initially brought in on loan – to see how they adjust to a new culture – though the organization always wants to improve its chances of making successful moves.
“I think it helps that we have a lot of Spanish speakers in the club,” Knowles says, when asked about the transition for the Hurtados and Ojedas of the world. “We have a lot of bilingual guys on the team, which is good. That helps. (The organization is) just trying to show them what the pathway (to MLS) is really developing quickly and how important it is to train well, to perform.
“The character of guys like Marvin and Renzo, they are really good character guys. Not only were they good players, but they have really good character. They came in here with a goal in mind, and they’re getting to get closer to that goal, now, by signing with the first team.
“[The team is) just sort of showing that we are providing a pathway to the team; that the teams really are connected. Seeing the success of those guys in the past hopefully gives us something to show guys coming in that it’s real and it does exist.”
Beyond the talent players like Hurtado and Ojeda bring, their arrivals give Knowles options. If all works out, T2 will have all of Langsdorf, Sierakowski, Kobayashi, Hurtado and Ojeda capable of being attacking threats. Anguiano provides valuable depth in midfield. In defense, Orstil and Diz Pe are each capable of complementing Jadama in the middle, while the return of Smith gives Knowles cover for Farfan and Hanson at fullback. More options will develop, too, and just as, in 2018, Barmby and Kendall McIntosh were key parts despite being on first-team deals, more Timbers talent could yet be leveraged during the USL season.
“Hopefully we’re at the same (level) if not better,” Knowles says. “We’ve got to see how guys play together. We’ve got to see what the opposition looks like … But we’ve got a lot of familiar faces. We’ve got a lot of turnover with T2, but in terms of core players, there’s a lot of familiarity, which will be good.”
Good, and hopefully slightly better than 2018. The team still has not hosted a playoff game, Knowles reminds. They haven’t won a postseason match, either. There are still rungs to climb, and while some key parts of last year’s team are gone, the support T2 is getting from the first team – plus the potential of USL-signed players like Leeker, Kobayashi, Wharton and Sierakowski – gives the USL Championship side a chance to build on its breakthrough season.