Merlo Field, 2018
Photo by Sam Ortega

New challenges await T2 in season-opener at Merlo

BEAVERTON, Ore. – This year, the movie turned 30 years old, and while CBS used to air it every year, there may be an entire generation of people who have never seen Field of Dreams ­– the 1989 Kevin Costner vehicle that combined magical realism while leveraging baseball’s Americana, creating a new brand of sports storytelling. Perhaps baseball’s wane as a cultural touchstone will leave the movie forgotten.

Yet there is an image at the end of director Phil Alden Robinson’s movie that would inspire chills in any sports fan: that of a line of cars, extended through the Iowa prairie, being inexplicable drawn to Ray Kinsella’s farm, where the young father has risked his family’s livelihood to, in response to voices from his fields, build a baseball diamond. That it was a baseball diamond, in particular, may have been important to W.P. Kinsella, the author of the movie’s literary inspiration, but the cars could have just as easily been driving to an isolated basketball hoop or pond hockey rink. Field of Dreams applied to almost any sport.

This is the feeling that devotees get when they arrive on the University of Portland campus, where Harry A. Merlo Field sits atop the North Portland bluffs. From that crest, downtown’s skyline can be seen from the east and above, over the freeways and river’s water. Looking back the other direction, the clear skies extending out toward Mount Hood are blessed with the light of a setting sun. Combined with the serenity of the one of the country’s most beautiful playing surfaces, Merlo is a field of dreams for soccer, one that left some Timbers 2 players inspired after an exhibition game there three weeks ago.

Goalkeeper Jake Leeker was one of those players. Part of Real Monarchs last season, Leeker, a second-year professional, was still unfamiliar with the field’s virtues, but in talking with after the game, the 23-year-old St. Louis-raised, University of Memphis-groomed backstop danced around a series of hypotheticals: What if I’d played here in college? Why haven’t I played here before? When can we get back to this field?

Back from the road

Timbers 2 are back at Merlo tomorrow, opening 2019’s home slate against the Las Vegas Lights after a successful start on the road (7pm PT, Stream at Four points in two games against the Tulsa Roughnecks (1-1, March 9) and, more impressively, San Antonio FC (3-1, March 16) leave head coach Cameron Knowles’ team third in the USL Championship’s Western Conference.

“To get a result on the road in the first game, I think the guys were a little bit disappointed not to get more out of it with the chances we created,” Knowles confessed this week, talking to Timbers in 30, “but then to bounce back with another strong performance in San Antonio was really encouraging.”

“Really encouraging" may be an understatement. San Antonio is one of many USL teams which, independent and singularly-focused on their Championship fortunes, has built an experienced and talented squad. Darren Powell’s team missed the playoffs last season, but that state was a mild shock. SAFC is one of the more respected and consistent organizations at U.S. men’s soccer’s second professional level.

To go into Toyota Field and secure a two-goal win would be notable for anybody, but it’s the way Portland did so that’s worth of note. Their only goal conceded was from the penalty spot. They never trailed. Playing up most of the match, T2’s transition game was the match’s dominant force, with players like Marvin Loría (two goals), Eryk Williamson (arguably the game’s best player) and Renzo Zambrano (metronomic and defining in midfield) dictating the match’s flow.

Add in players like Modou Jadama – the group’s best player in week one – Foster Langsdorf and Marco Farfan, Knowles has a core of talents who, beyond having MLS potential, have played with each other for over a year, now – ever since T2’s drastic overhaul last offseason. You can also add names like Harold Hanson and Roy Miller to that list, as well as the likes of Carlos Anguiano, Arturo Diz Pe and Nathan Smith – the three of which were cast into supporting roles, early on.

Instead of being a group of talents that need a season to craft their mold, T2 has started 2019 building from success. The familiarity their most important players have with each other is playing a huge part.

“It’s critical,” Knowles explains, of his core’s familiarity with each other, alluding to the time those MLS-contracted players spend with the first time, the MLS Timbers, as another aspect to consider:

“We don’t have a lot of time to train those guys throughout the week. We don’t get the whole group together all the time, necessarily. And the same through preseason. To have that familiarity and then to have players step in that weren’t involved with the group last year that have seamlessly transitioned into their roles really has been critical to the on-field success.”

Leeker is among those new names, as is attacker Ryan Sierakowski, who has translated his first-round pick status in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft to an early starting spot. But perhaps most impactful of the new faces has been midfielder Todd Wharton, who has provided a new dynamic to the team’s midfield.

New faces, tweaked approach

Last season, the team’s most consistent midfield alignment featured Williamson, Zambrano and the departed Andre Lewis, who played a crucial, holding role next to Zambrano in the team’s midfield. Reliable in position and clean on the ball, Lewis provided consistency from a deep-lying position, giving T2 two strong presences from the middle of the park.

Wharton provides something different, and with it, has been the source of the team’s most significant tactical shift, this season. Still playing out of a 4-2-3-1 formation, T2 is no longer playing with two holding midfielders. Wharton, 25, is aligned next to Zambrano but often is bounding forward early in the team’s build-up phase, reading the movements of Langsdorf and Williamson to identify space or, when he gets forward early enough, occupying defenders to free space for Williamson.

Wharton scored his first goal of the season last week, and it’s no coincidence Williamson and Zambrano had massive games, too. The balance between the three has been encouraging, so early in the season.

“Those guys have been playing very well together,” Knowles said. “The three guys in the middle, Todd has come in, and he’s got some experience in the league, and he’s got a lot of quality, too. Eryk, Renzo, those guys and the way that they’re been playing together has been encouraging, for sure.”

Williamson is gone this week, attending U.S. U-23 national camp in Spain along with Farfan and Timbers’ forward Jeremy Ebobisse. In all likelihood, that means either Anguiano coming into the team or, perhaps, Loría moving to the middle while somebody like the newly-arrived Brayan Hurtado gets his first start. For the first time this season, T2’s going to have to adjust.

The Field of Dreams boost

That adjustment, though, will be a secondary concern. T2 will still have enough talent to execute, but last year, when Portland often had the edge in talent, home games added another challenge. Of T2’s 55 points, last season, only 27 came at home. The team was actually better on the road.

“For me, personally, the way we started at home for probably the first half of the season – take out a couple of results – I don’t think we were dominant enough,” Knowles says. “I don’t think home was a big enough advantage for us, and the way that we play, we have to make it very, very difficult when teams come here …

“They knew that they might have a chance to get some points off us. What we’ve got to set is a really high standard for our performances here, at home, right from the start.”

Perhaps this is where the Field of Dreams effect boomerangs on T2. Portland Thorns FC experienced this over their first three seasons, too. For so many teams coming to Providence Park or Merlo Field, matches in Portland become a season highlight: getting to play at a renowned MLS venue; or, seeing the reputation of Merlo’s surface play true.

The Thorns eventually solved that problem through experience, learning they had to match their opponents’ levels. Whatever the reasons for those levels, T2 is walking the same course.

“It’s a multitude of factors, but I do think that the environment lends itself to other teams playing well,” Knowles acknowledged. “We have a great facility at Merlo – one of the best grass fields in the country – and if we’re not there, we’re playing at Providence Park, which is the most exciting MLS stadium to play in in the country.

“We know we’re going to get the best punch from the opposition. We have to rise to that, and we have to show them that it going to be difficult, that they’re going to have to fight for everything that they get here.”

Saturday gives T2 its first chance this season to show that fight. Las Vegas struggled to a 15th-place (out of 17) finish last season, but with a new coach (Eric Wynalda) and an overhauled roster, they’ll likely be improved.

No matter the opponent, T2 has to set its own standards at home, whether that be at Providence Park or at their Field of Dreams in Merlo. If they do so this weekend, they’ll extend an already encouraging start.