I can't believe it's almost September, well about 2 hours away from September anyway as I write this. It seems like just yesterday, girl and I were getting married and shuttling off to our honeymoon, and now the summer has just about passed and the Timbers have 5 games left in the regular season.
To say it's been a most interesting ride would be a huge understatement indeed. Within the season, we've played 4 different goal keepers: Ray Burse, Jordan James, Brad Knighton and Chase Harrison. We had Josh Wicks signed and ready to go, but he was signed for bigger money to go to Los Angeles, and we scrambled to find an experienced keeper, which we got in Burse on loan from FC Dallas. The caveat with the loan was simply that Dallas could call him back at anytime as injuries warranted. The team struggled out of the gate, the coaching staff was fired a few games into the season, and the new staff wanted to see what Burse could do, and so the revolving door started. James played well but struggled at time, Knighton was on loan from New England in the MLS and played well until he was recalled a few weeks ago, and Harrison was acquired in a mid season trade and played pretty well in his first game up in Vancouver. Keeper is a position that you want some stability at, and we simply haven't had it up until know. Harrison provides some hope for the future, but the next five games holds the key.
The keeper situation hasn't been helped with some defender injuries and suspensions, as we signed Justin Thompson late, Leonard Griffin has struggled a bit at times, and Scot Thompson has missed games for red card/ejections and the birth of his son recently. Cameron Knowles has been a stalwart in the back, but even he's missed games with yellow card accumulation. Combine this with some spotty midfield play all year, which led to a rare mid season trade of Andrew Gregor. Gregor, our former captain, had a great year last year leading us in scoring and assists, but he struggled this year with inconsistent play. He became the target of some criticism for his lackluster efforts from game to game, which I think was warranted. When you put on the captain's armband, you become the lightening rod for praise and furor even if it's not directed at you. Gregor ended up in Rochester, and threw some of his teammates under the bus in leaving, questioning their talent and efforts. Whether this was used to motivate him or truly spew some venom at his former employers, I considered it sour tears from a former player that didn't want to admit that his place on the team had changed.
Part of Gregor's venom was directed at Taka Suzuki, a forward/striker we signed from Japan this year. Taka got off to an amazing start to the season, notching a top quality goal versus Shittle that was played over and over again on USL Live. Taka is a very skilled player, having World Cup experience and years of playing in the J-League, but since that goal, he's struggled with the physicality of the play and his place in the offense. He seems to be more settled in his new role as more of an attacking midfielder rather than a striker, but he still hasn't scored since that goal. We've also gained some new forwards, which really were blasts from the past as Bryan Jordan and Byron Alvarez are back with the team (Jordan was loaned to us by LA, Byron resigned recently). We also mixed in new guys Chris Brown (signed in the off season) and Jamil Walker (received as part of the Gregor trade) with holdover Chris Bagley up top.
We've struggled to score goals, but it's certainly not because of a lack of effort up top. The roller coaster effect that this team has shown is simply not knowing what team will show up at what point of the game - will it be wide open offensive team, or strong defensive squad. I know that the coaching staff has made changes in the lineup, tried new formations, and generally tried to figure out what's going on. With some guys, they've hit the doghouse never to return, while some players have been openly questioned by the coaches during interviews about lack of effort and passion. I think it's safe to say that while the coaches may now soccer, they've struggled to find a consistent voice or process that works with this team.
Certainly the information above would give anyone a few excuses to say why the team has struggled - new players, injuries, coaches shaking things up just to try things, suspensions - and it would explain the up and down play of this team. And now, we sit with just 5 games left in the year and there's still a chance for these guys to play in the postseason, where all bets are off in terms of issues. Anyone can win a title if the cards play out right, and if you get hot at the right time, who knows what might happen. But seriously, this up and down bunch making the playoffs? Does anyone still believe in their chances.
Well, after attending today's barbecue hosted by the team for the fans, I would say that's a distinct possibility. Over 200 fans showed up to mingle with the team, eat some food, play pickup games on the pitch, and generally have some quality time with the team. And all the players and coaches were there, chatting it up with the fans, generally having a good time. The fact that all of them were there, hanging out as a group together, it showed me that the team hasn't lost each other in their struggles. They aren't pointing fingers, they are sticking it out with each other. And they all seemed very loose and relaxed, just taking in the day with the fans. The weather cooperated for the most part, and it was a great time for everyone.
I'm impressed the team would sponsor this type of endeavor, with free food and beer, skills games for the kids and adults, stadium tours, and Merritt Paulson there to talk about the efforts to bring MLS to town. And if you really wanted to buy next year's season tickets, you could. Which I did simply because I love my team. What I saw in watching the players was the relaxed nature of a team that has pulled themselves together as a group, and is looking out for each other. It was fun to watch Lawrence Olum catch footballs, and chat a bit with Bryan Jordan about passing and dribbling skills but also talk about being in Los Angeles. These guys are extremely nice and cordial, but they also seem like a tight knit group as well, and that bodes well for a playoff run. If guys are playing for themselves (see 2006 version of the Timbers under Agnello), then nobody is looking out for anyone but themselves. I did notice Taka seemed a bit uncomfortable in the beer garden, but I think that's mostly due to the language barrier and that probably won't change until either he learns more English or the fans learn some Japanese. Plus, he was surrounded by teammates who were chatting with him as best they could.
It would be easy at this point to fold up the tent and go home. I mean, the Timbers are in eighth place in the USL table and there are some teams with easier paths to get to the playoffs (Montreal has more games to play, Shittle plays at home for the rest of the year, Minnesota seems to have an easier schedule). But I don't see the quit in this team, especially after today. They still believe in each other, and I think that's a big thing to have established during a stretch run. Plus, it seems like the early season struggles have righted themselves with some better offensive play, and some quality keeping. We just need to keep up the hard work, and let the chips fall where they may. I can say that I can't think of a better place to be on a Sunday afternoon that hanging with the Timbers, but seriously, I'll leave the serious soccer playing to the professionals.
Thursday night, the stretch run begins with Miami coming to town. We then travel to Rochester on the 6th (Saturday), and then visit Montreal on the following Monday. Our final home game is September 11th versus Charleston, then we finish the year in Carolina on the 20th. I'd like to think we could get 12 points from the games, ending the year strong and getting into the playoffs. Whether we make it or not, what I'm encouraged about is the strength of the team's bond with each other, and how genuinely nice and approachable these guys are. These foundation blocks will be vital as we move forward towards the playoffs and the future of soccer in Portland....
Final Note - Wednesday at 9 AM there is a press conference at PGE Park about Portland's MLS efforts and some updates for everyone. I'd expect some updates on web pages to view information, announcement of key dates to when proposals are due, and some things that soccer fans can do to help the effort to bring MLS here. For more information about this press conference, visit the Soccer City USA board (www.soccercityusa.com) and look in the MLS to PDX section, or visit www.mlstopdx.com. I'll have a quick match preview and some highlights from the conference sometime on Wednesday...