The jersey unveiling went without a hitch. The opening of the new Timbers retail store was flawless. And its clever video and billboard ad campaign “There’s no pity in the Rose City” has been creating enormous buzz among the locals.
Even the billboard sign the Timbers erected near Qwest Field claiming Portland to be “Soccer City USA” captured the well-seasoned rivalry that is sure to intensify now that Portland has joined Major League Soccer.
But ultimately it matters what kind of team the Timbers put on the pitch. Timbers head coach John Spencer and staff have been busy in that department, too. They have jumped from one announcement to the other in a matter of what seems like nano seconds, but in reality, has been spread out over the past few months.
So far, Spencer & Co. have been assembling a young, athletic and gritty team, but it is too early to know if the Timbers can follow the Sounders FC model and qualify for the playoffs in the first year. One thing will be clear: Spencer is clearly molding a team to reflect the Portland character, its culture, and you can be assured it will carry some of the Scotsman’s work ethic and his passion for the game.
“The team has got to reflect the city of Portland,” Spencer said, in an earlier statement. “They will see a hard working group, a vibrant team, full of athleticism. I tell you what, if you don’t go out and work hard for these fans, they will let you know.”
Like the intensity of the advertising campaign “There’s no pity in the Rose City,” the Timbers will be a tough, steely defensive side that will probably give up home goals grudgingly — very grudgingly. Scoring goals, however, could be their achilles heel.
Their style of play and their personality will pay homage to the resourceful strength that rises from Portland and Oregon’s rugged logging, farming and frontier traditions. But it will be tempered by the global sophistication that Portland shares with Seattle and a similarity to other hip, sophisticated European places. It will be a team of beauty and brawn.
So far, Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson, general manager and technical director, have assembled a young squad of 15 players — average age about 25. The player mix has been either American or European — with a dash of African. They have created a balance between young and experienced players, and the team will likely reflect a European style of play — a direct, fast, 4-4-2 system, according to Spencer.
The big names to grace the squad at this juncture have a decidedly defensive bent: DC United keeper Troy Perkins, Arsenal FC outside back Kerrea Gilbert and DC United outside back Rodney Wallace.
It appears to be no surprise, then, that Spencer likes fast attacking outside defenders. Expect him to be directing Gilbert and Wallace to gallop forward as much as possible–something they both are well known for doing.
Those speedy and athletic defenders likely will be supported by two able and experienced central defenders: Columbus Crew’s Eric Brunner, who stands 6-4 and is hard to beat in the air, and hardman Kevin Goldwaithe, a six-year MLS veteran who started regularly for the New York Red Bulls. Goldwaithe also helped win a 2006 MLS Cup with Houston Dynamo but spent most of last season with the Timbers recovering from an injury.
“Were very happy where are. We need to improve in the midfield and up front,” Wilkinson told Sportspress Northwest. “I think we’ll put together a very good team.”
The team undoubtedly will reflect the passion, work ethic and intensity of Spencer. The 39-year-old former striker is taking the reins as head coach for the first time. Spencer played 18 years for such noted English clubs as Chelsea, Everton and Queens Park Rangers, and Scotlands Glasgow Rangers.
In MLS, Spencer starred for the Colorado Rapids from 2001-04, becoming the only player to be the teams MVP and scoring leader in the same season more than once. He served as an assistant coach for the Houston Dynamo for nearly five seasons.
Ironically, Spencer, the former goal scorer, has focused on building a rock-solid defensive team. He also has elevated a handful of Timber players from the USL-1 team, who he asserts can make the jump to the MLS.
Of those players, the most promising appear to be midfielder Kalif Alhassan and forwards Eddie Johnson, a former Manchester United Academy player, and Ryan Pore, who scored 15 goals and won the the league’s 2010 Golden Boot Award.
But can that trio succeed against more physical and athletic MLS defenders? Portland still lacks the technical play makers, the creative dribblers and the proven forwards that can score goals under the heighten pressure.
Supporters are taking a wait-and-see attitude. But they have faith Spencer and Wilkinson will come through with some top attacking talent.
“So far I am satisfied. But I am going to withhold judgment until I see some of the future signings,” said Garrett Dittfurth, one of the officers of the Timbers’ Army, the team’s major supporter’s group. “Spencer has said he wants to build an exciting attacking team, so I assume the focus will shift to the offensive side moving forward.”
Indeed. The Timbers still have time to put all the pieces together. It still has 15 roster spots to fill. The MLS SuperDraft is coming up in January. And Wilkinson said the team will splurge for a Designated Player if the right, youngish star is available. What you won’t see in a Timbers Green or Red jersey is a fading oldish superstar looking for an extended American holiday.
“Our owner (Merritt Paulson) said if we find the right player that suits the organization and our style of play, then we will sign him,” Wilkinson said. “We will find a designated player if he fits.”
So far, the Timbers have acquired players that fit well into the Portland culture but who will put up a fight every time they step onto the pitch. Wilkinson pointed out that Portland are the current holders of the Cascadia Cup, and it’s fair to assume they aren’t about to give it up anytime soon.