BEAVERTON, Ore. — The Portland Timbers have known for a while that Jake Gleeson could become a top-notch goalkeeper. It is why the New Zealander was one of the first players signed by the Timbers when they entered Major League Soccer.
“We always knew he was a very good goalkeeper,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said. “You ask anybody – staff, coaches, players – they would have told you that Jake was and is a very good goalkeeper.”
Until Adam Kwarasey’s freak finger injury in April, Gleeson was only the team’s goalkeeper of the future.
After impressing in Kwarasey’s absence, the 26-year-old is the man of the present and the future for Portland. On July 18 the Timbers transferred Kwarasey to Rosenborg BK of Norway’s top league.
For Gleeson, the move marked his arrival at the destination he’s envisioned since a meeting with Timbers general manager and fellow New Zealander Gavin Wilkinson in 2010 convinced him to come to Portland to play for the Timbers Under-23 team.
Even as he toiled in training and behind Donovan Ricketts and Kwarasey, at times wondering if he would get a shot to be the guy in goal, Gleeson said his dream never changed.
“I wanted to stay here and play here. I love it here. The fans are amazing. The city’s amazing, so for me to be a starter here was definitely the end goal,” Gleeson said. “There were times when maybe I didn’t think it was going to work out. Even now it’s so early I’ve got a long way to go to keep this position and keep playing well.”
Gleeson’s play over the 15 matches since Kwarasey’s injury proved his time had arrived. The Timbers have a 6-3-6 record this season with Gleeson in goal. His 70 saves are the second most in MLS, trailing only Vancouver’s David Ousted who has played six more matches than Gleeson.
Because of injuries to Troy Perkins and current Timbers goalkeeper coach Adin Brown, Gleeson played in four of the first five MLS matches in Timbers history back in 2011. But after playing in the club’s first two MLS home games, Gleeson did not make another MLS appearance until he played for an ill Kwarasey in last season’s Western Conference semifinals (a scoreless draw). He replaced Kwarasey in the second half of the April 16 home match against San Jose, one day short of five years after his previous regular-season match.
In between, Gleeson honed his craft in training sessions. In 2014 he was loaned to Sacramento Republic and helped that team win the United Soccer League title. Last season Gleeson played 20 matches with the Timbers' USL team, Timbers 2, posting a 8-10-2 record with three shutouts. That was valuable experience for Gleeson, Porter said, but also evidence that he wasn’t yet ready to take the reins.
Porter said Gleeson needed “game experience and I’d say mental, physical toughness. You have to develop that sometimes.”
Gleeson called Kwarasey a phenomenal goalkeeper whose calm confidence and ability to play the game with his feet are attributes that Kwarasey helped Gleeson improve. Those are among the skills Gleeson will continue to work to develop as he strives to become the Timbers' long-term goalkeeper.
“It’s a confidence booster to know that the club and Caleb and the coaching staff have confidence in me,” he said. “It’s taken a while for me to get to this spot, but nothing really changes. It’s the same mentally day in and day out.”