Last season, Timbers midfield winger Kalif Alhassan came out of the gate strong and became only the third player in Major League Soccer history to record an assist in each of his first three career home games.
A mainstay in midfield for head coach John Spencer during last year, the 21-year-old Ghanaian appeared in 32 matches (starting 27) and finished the campaign with six assists while coming inches away from notching his first career goal on more than one occasion.
It’s those few inches, and perhaps the realization of added depth in the midfield, that is pushing Alhassan to work harder this preseason.
“Everybody is trying to get a spot now. So, everybody is trying to work on their stuff. I think I need to do more,” Alhassan said. “Coach already knows what I can do, so I’m trying to do more so I can get a (starting) spot.”
Spencer echoed Alhassan’s comment, saying spots are certainly on the line during the week preceding the March 12 home opener against the Philadelphia Union.
When asked what more he thought he could do, Alhassan said scoring that seemingly elusive first league goal was on the list along with increasing his assist totals from a year ago. In preseason play earlier this week, Alhassan found the back of the net with a curling shot inside the far post in the Timbers' 1-1 draw with San Jose.
Alhassan and the rest of the Timbers only have this week’s preseason tournament matches remaining in the final push before a nationally-televised opening night meeting with the Union, who finished third in the Eastern Conference in 2011.
Months ago, while on a two-month vacation at home in Ghana during the offseason, Alhassan continued to work, meeting up with several former teammates to help him stay sharp and in shape.
“It was good to see my family and friends,” said Alhassan. “I played a lot, like almost everyday and I played with a couple of (former) teammates.”
While preseason training got underway in January, he also kept a close eye on Ghana while they played in the recently-completed 2012 African Cup of Nations.
The Black Stars, four-time African champions, finished first in their group ahead of Mali, Guinea and Botswana and advanced to the knockout rounds.
Ghana needed extra time for a 2-1 win over Tunisia in the quarterfinals, but lost to eventual champion Zambia 1-0 in the semifinals.
In the third-place game, Ghana faced group-stage partners Mail and lost 2-0 for a fourth-place finish.
“I thought we did quite good,” said Alhassan, who has previously been called into camps for Ghana’s youth national teams. “It’s one of those things when everybody counts on you, sometimes you get overrated. I would say it is OK we lost because we made some mistakes, but next time we’re going to do good.”