Timbers2 has had a bumpy start to their first season in MLS NEXT Pro, but the record does not speak for the team's improvement. T2 is currently 1-12-2 and in 11th place in the Western Conference.
MLS NEXT Pro consists of 21 teams and serves as a development league between MLS teams and their academies. The league is divided into Eastern and Western conferences, and each NEXT Pro team plays 24 regular season games. The league concludes with an 8-team playoff champion. With the club being inactive for two years due to COVID, Shannon Murray had a big project handed to him in his first year as T2 head coach.
"Our level of play as a group has gone up," said Murray. “The more the guys we train with play together, the more that style improves. We're getting there. It's a long process, but we're still very excited about the project."
Developing players on the roster is a significant help for the Portland Timbers. T2 utilizes 13 Academy players, the youngest being 16-year-old midfielder Ian Shaul. The Oregon native has played in seven games, starting six matches this season.
The significant age gaps between Timbers players and Academy players could make team chemistry difficult yet the blending of different ages is something the team has used to its advantage. T2 captain, and midfielder Dawson McCartney has played 13 matches since signing a short-term contract in May. The former Notre Dame soccer stand-out has tallied an impressive 1,062 minutes this season, scoring two goals and one assist.
"As a second team, there are a lot of moving parts, but we've become a lot more organized, and a lot more whole as a group, and I think moving forward, that unity will help a lot," assured McCartney.
T2 academy forward Diego Elizalde has played in seven games this season, including four starts. The ambitious 17-year-old attacker says having the opportunity to play with veteran players has improved his level of play and his mindset.
"I think it's been helpful for me; training with older guys in a professional environment prepares me for the next step," explained Elizalde. "Especially Johan Hinestroza; he helps me have a strong mindset to stay focused on the game. He told me to get and read the Kobe Bryant book because it will help me with my perspective. The Mamba c ' mentality will help me on the field."
Defender Julian Bravo, who played collegiately at Santa Clara, has started 13 games this season, racking up 1,170 minutes played. Bravo has proven himself an invaluable member of the back line.
"At first, it was a challenge to get everyone on the same page; experience is a big part of it, but you know the younger guys are making big jumps, and it's the responsibility of the older guys to try to guide them as much as possible," said Bravo.
The team’s lineups will continue to adjust as the season progresses as some players leave to start their collegiate careers. Team morale remains high. Players and staff agree a positive outlook is the way to go regardless of the outcome of their matches.
"We still have that self-belief in ourselves even though, as I said, we've had some more challenging losses," said McCartney. "Our goal for the rest of the season is to keep pushing; we haven't had the best results, but I think we've made much progress."
Timbers2 all have the same goal each weekend: win and 3 points. Next up for T2 is a home match against Earthquakes II at Providence Park on Friday, July 22nd, kicking off at 1 p.m.