By many accounts, the Portland Timbers inaugural season in MLS was considered a success as the team stayed competitive all the way through the year, battled in the thick of the MLS Cup playoffs hunt and finished in a fourth-place tie for most overall wins by an expansion team with 11.
Now, as the team readies itself for a nationally televised MLS First Kick showdown with the Philadelphia Union on Monday at 6:30 p.m. PT (ESPN2, 750 AM The Game / 940 AM La Pantera), the question on everyone’s mind is: What does the second go-around hold in store for the team?
Much of the core group of last year’s squad remains intact with several key offseason acquisitions expected to add experience and depth ahead of a long 2012 campaign.
Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson took some time out of a busy day to address the state of the team heading into its second year in MLS.
Depth in all areas
Wilkinson, a former New Zealand international and Timbers second-division player and coach, expressed a measure of happiness with the bevy of options head coach John Spencer and his coaching staff has at various positions ahead of the club’s first regular-season match.
“We have a lot more depth,” Wilkinson said. “We have improved the overall quality of the squad and now it’s up to the players to perform how we know and think they can perform.”
Certainly, injuries have forced the team’s depth chart to be shuffled around during the preseason, with defenders David Horst (offseason hip surgery) and Futty Danso (foot fracture) currently out of commission along with midfielder Sal Zizzo still rehabilitating his surgically-repaired anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
Several more players have been nursing various knocks in the run up to First Kick, somewhat unintentionally highlighting the Timbers depth around the pitch.
“You start to look at where we’ve sustained a few injuries; if this would’ve happened to us last year I think we would’ve been bare-bones in certain areas,” Wilkinson said. “Now, even though there are some unfortunate injuries that we’ve had to deal with as of late, we still have depth and quality.
“I would prefer that we didn’t have as many injuries. I would prefer us to be fully fit and healthy, but right now, based on our depth, we’re still doing well. We’ve got a good group.”
Notable offseason additions at defender and forward combined with an already deep midfield from 2011 have made it hard for Wilkinson to choose the deepest position on the team.
“I feel good about everywhere, I know that sounds typical, but I think we’ve got a lot of depth, a lot of quality and I’m happy with where we’re at right now with the entire group,” Wilkinson said.
Acclimating the new players
Essentially creating a roster from scratch through the MLS Expansion Draft, MLS SuperDraft, signings and second-division Timbers carry-overs in 2011, it’s easy to see why many first-year teams struggle to produce results on the field.
The inexperience of a young roster, the rigors of travel and the length of the season surely wore down the squad as the Timbers fell a couple points shy of qualifying for the MLS Cup playoffs in their first season.
As Year Two hits the ground against the Union on Monday, the added year of experience creates many exciting possibilities for the Timbers – especially with respect to foreign players that were still acclimating to new surroundings during last season.
“I think last year we were very cautious with Diego Chara and Jorge Perlaza,” Wilkinson said of the team’s Colombian signings from 2011. “We were very honest in that it would take time for them to acclimate to the city, to the style of the game in the US, to the team itself, the personalities around the team, learning English, the culture – everything about it. Even with that, I think we also saw a lot of quality from them last season as well.”
Now, with a better grasp of the North American game’s style and feeling more comfortable with their surroundings, players like Perlaza and Chara have the potential to breakthrough on the MLS stage in 2012.
“Jorge has come back this year a little fitter and stronger than where he was last year, so expectations for him are high,” Wilkinson said of Perlaza, who had six goals and two assists last year.
“Diego Chara is always in great physical condition. Hopefully, he performs how we know he can.”
In addition, Perlaza and Chara should help the acclimation of their compatriot, 25-year-old Colombian defender Hanyer Mosquera. Mosquera was acquired from Colombian side La Equidad during the offseason.
“He’s coming along. I would say be patient with Hanyer,” Wilkinson said. “If he comes on like the other two Colombians did last year, we’ve got ourselves a very, very good player.”
The squad also added players with European experience in Cameroonian midfielder Franck Songo’o and young American goalkeeper Joe Bendik, along with signing 18-year-old midfielder Charles Renken and drafting burly defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste.
The biggest splash of the offseason, however, came in January with the signing of Scottish striker Kris Boyd – a designated player acquired primarily to accomplish one task: score goals.
“I think Kris Boyd is a good professional, has a great personality. It’s like I said with the Colombians last year, we’ve put ourselves in a good position because we’ve got good people on board,” Wilkinson said. “With Kris, he’s adjusted well; he’s blended well into the squad. If he scores goals, he’ll be happy and we’ll be happy. Right now, we’re very happy.”
Looking down the road
The organization isn’t only focused on the 2012 MLS season. The future success of the Timbers starts with the team’s development structure, including the Portland Timbers U-23s (Premier Development League), the Timbers academy and regional training centers around the state meant to cull the very best in homegrown talent.
The Timbers signed their first homegrown player, Brent Richards, to a contract in January. The signing made Richards, who is from Camas, Wash., the third player to make the jump from the Timbers U-23s to the MLS side.
MLS Supplemental draft pick and former University of Portland defender Ryan Kawulok bumped the number up of former Timbers U-23s up to four when he signed with the team in early March. Kawulok even scored his first goal with the team during the Timbers preseason tournament (a late equalizer against Chivas USA).
“We’re not going to see the true benefits of the PDL and the academy and our whole youth structure for another few years until we start getting the quality coming through the system,” Wilkinson said. “The players that we’ve primarily got in the PDL are a collection of what we consider to be the best players, but not all are homegrown. Eventually, I’d love our PDL system to be all homegrown players coming through to benefit the first team.”
The organization shouldn’t have a problem finding players as the team announced recently that their Timbers U-23s spring tryouts on March 10-11 and March 24-25 have reached capacity and that the team is no longer accepting registrations.
“I see the PDL giving us depth in the squad and quality depth with the ability to improve especially with another player like Ryan Kawulok,” Wilkinson said. “He’s come into preseason and done very well and has found himself in a good position at the moment.”
Building on the past, focusing on the present, with a glimpse of the future waiting in the wings, the 2012 season should prove to be an exciting one. Monday evening's First Kick is where it will all begin.