Honestly, what fun would things be if you knew the outcome ahead of time? Well, it might save for some anxious moments here and there, but at the same time, there is a sense of discovery and anxiety that come from the unknown. It can be terrifying, nauseating, and completely intoxicating. Where I'm digressing here is that I'm doing a Timbers season preview 3 games into the regular season, which might not seem like a good idea, but I'm doing it anyway. Part of this is that I want to do a preview after seeing most of the new players, and last Saturday was the final game for me to see most everyone, and I want to base my thoughts strictly on what I've seen.
I'm no footy expert, I've just been watching the Timbers since 2001, playing for almost a year, and watching as many games as I can from leagues all over the world, and so I think I have a good idea of what works and what doesn't. That's the neat thing about blogs, you can share your opinion in cyberspace, and people can do with it what they want. It's sort of the feeling that I described in the first paragraph, you might read this and see something that inspires you, or it could just be read as blah blah blah...
I did find a couple of entries about the team, from the Oregonian's early season preview, done a few days before the match in Vancouver, and the official team roster page. And with the number of new faces, it might be good to refer to the site because it's taken me a bit to get the names and faces associated. So without furtuer ado, here we go. Players in italics are here on loan, players in green are returnees from last year.
GoalKeepers (3) - Steve Cronin, Brian Visser, Chris Seitz
Cronin and Visser have been in camp for most of the year, Cronin signed from the LA Galaxy, and Visser from Purdue University. Cronin was the on and off starter last year, but suffered with the rest of the Galaxy defense in giving up tons of goals, although it was determined that most of them weren't his fault. The Timbers were looking for a full time keeper after last year's revolving door that saw 4 men man the pipes for us, and Cronin was signed to a higher salary that usual to get him for the next two years. Visser was a trialist that showed promise, and I thought he looked good in the exhibition game at U of Portland versus the Pilots before he got hurt. Cronin was very good in the Vancouver game, the one goal that he let in was a deflection, but he's got a strong leg, is extremely vocal and seems like a good organizer of the defense. However, Cronin was injured in training before the Carolina matches, and so we acquired Seitz on loan for two games from Real Salt Lake. He's got a cannon for a leg, and seems to have great hands, and performed admirably on Thursday for essentially being thrown into the deep end.
Outlook: I think our keepers will be a strength for us, especially since barring injury, we should have the same two guys all year. During 2007, we had one keeper, Josh Wicks, play most of the games except for friendlies, and the continuity kept things sharp, unlike last year's train wreck.
Defense (7) - Mamadou Danso. Scot Thompson, Cameron Knowles, Cameron Dunn, David Hayes, Stephen Keel, Takuro Nishimura
We led the league in 2007 in goals allowed and goals allowed average, courtesy of Wicks and the work of Scot and Cameron. Needless to say, 2008 was not nearly as successful, as the defense really was exposed by teams that pressured aggressively and could make quick crosses. It didn't help with the revolving door of keeper, but the defense digressed a bit.
We did get one nice surprise with the signing of Cameron Dunn last year, formerly from the California Victory. Dunn is heady, with a good sense of positioning and speed to push players to the outside, which is something that Thompson does very well, too. Knowles is as physical of a defender as you will meet, standing guys up anywhere on the pitch, and playing the game very smartly. With the loss of Leonard Griffin and Justin Thompson, you couldn't ask for better defensive anchors to return as Scot and the Camerons. They provide a savvy veteran influence, as well as an ability to play within themselves.
The new defenders bring some good skills to the table. Hayes is an all league defender from Atlanta who loves red boots, and has a wicked left foot. His long kicks are a huge weapon, and I don't recall us having a strong left boot in the back for a while. He also has good recovery speed, and plays positioning well. Keel is very tall, and also plays good positioning which makes up for the fact that he may not be as fast as the other defenders. He plays with a huge amount of passion, which is good as long as he keeps a clear head. He needs to take a page from Scot on that. Danso may be the best overall athlete in the back, as his motor doesn't stop when he gets on the pitch. I didn't see him back down from any challenge on Saturday and he played very calmly and collectively, which is a positive against Carolina, an extremely physical and chippy team by nature. Nishimura was another trialist from Japan, who is probably the fastest defender and most able to play the wings and run a lot. He also moved up to mid in the first Carolina game, so he shows some great versatility on the pitch.
Outlook: We will have a very strong defense, and can match physical and speedy teams with various lineups. I'm curious to see Dunn get a chance this year, but based on how well he played last year, I expect him to be a contributor this year. The backbone of this unit is Scot and Knowles, and how they play will dictate how this group performs.
Midfielders (9) - Tom Poltl, Tony McManus, Keith Savage, Johan Claesson, Ryan Pore, Brian Farber, Alex Nimo, Shawn Higgins, Josh Cameron
As you can see, of the nine guys on the team, we have only two holdovers from last year, as the midfield was a true mess last year. Players couldn't stay healthy last year, but I think the team also suffered from trying to play a style that wasn't condusive to the talent they had. It didn't help when former team captain Andrew Gregor was traded mid-season, which is never a good thing to have happen to what was supposed to be a key cog of the attack.
Nobody will ever outwork Poltl, as he plays very smartly on the pitch. He also plays on the ragged edge of passion, which leads to him getting a lot of foul calls and cards because of his style of play. The issue with Poltl is his height, which other teams really used against us last year with taller mids covering Tommy. Higgins, on the other hand, can play all over the pitch as he's a utility man. But like some utility men, he's really non-descript in playing, not doing anything special out there. He won't make mistakes, but at the same time, he's not going to generate much offense either.
Of the new guys, Claesson played in Sweden, Savage with Chivas USA from the MLS, McManus was in Atlanta, Farber was in Minnesota, Pore was with Kansas City of the MLS, Cameron was with Oregon State, and Nimo was with Real Salt Lake of the MLS. So you have three guys with MLS experience, one with international experience, two from other teams in the USL and a college guy. Not a bad mix to bring veteran experience with youth.
Claesson is very smart and disciplined in the midfield, attacking when he has an advantage. He also seems to scan the field quickly and makes passes designed to push the defense. Savage is the tallest midfield, and seems to be the strongest, mixing it up when he can. He tries to push things a bit much, but so far, it seems to be working well. Pore has the best motor in the mids, by virtue of his sweet goal and assist on Saturday, and he was pushed a lot by Farber, who got the other goal. They seem to play very well together on the wings, and they are very dangerous with their crosses. McManus is very much like Poltl, playing a very physical brand of soccer as evidenced by a card in the game Thursday. But his passion is also shown with a burning desire to outwork everyone, and he feeds off the energy from others. He's also gained a cult status in the TA with his work on our SCUSA board as TonyMcManus12, as he seems to have a love for quick phrases, working out, and drinking tons of G2. Nimo might be the fastest midfielder, but he's also the shortest guy out there, and he's not afraid to shoot from anywhere as evidenced by his play in Vancouver. Cameron might not get much time this year, but at least in the friendlies, he played mistake free ball, which is all you can ask from young players.
Outlook: Creative, feisty, and able to make good crosses, this might just be the best midfield group we've had. But then again, we thought Andrew Gregor was the second coming, and he got ran out of town. The depth helps a great deal here, but one concern I have is the only mid over 6 foot is Savage, so some teams with a lot of height in the middle might use that to their advantage, unless McManus pummels them.
Forwards (5) - Taka Suzuki, Antou Jallow, George Josten, Jason McLaughlin, Mandjou Keita
Taka Suzuki has a very impressive resume from his play in Japan for their national team and with the J League, but after his wicked goal versus Seattle early last year, he suffered with inconsistent play and it seemed like his spirit was broken. I didn't see the same passion from him that I did during the friendlies in the first part of the year, and I wasn't sure if it was unrealized expectations, language barrier or missing home that led to his funk. Whatever it is, his first few games this year show an improved spirit, although his footwork is still lacking a bit. He had some great chances in Vancouver that he failed to finish on, and whether that's rust or what, he needs to improve on that.
Keita has a great work ethic, and seems to have a nose for the ball, although he hasn't notched a goal. He does lead the team in shots, so perhaps that will come with extra work, but so far, he's been a nice addition. Josten really showed good speed and pace in his first work on Saturday, carrying the ball well and making good decisions with passes. I look forward to seeing him more, as well as McLaughlin, who came in late Saturday and showed some spunk. I remember him from Atlanta, and he's got a good shot and can hold the ball very well. Jallow also came in late on Saturday, and he didn't do anything good or bad in his short time, but he did generate some good work during the friendlies early with some good decisions and work rate.
Outlook: Suzuki may be the face of the franchise, but it's the work of the others that I think will either spell victory or defeat. Suzuki needs to finish better, and at least with his four partners, he's got good passers and guys that can pass, trap, and shoot quickly. Gavin has used various lineups so far, and so I don't have a good idea what combination will work best, but I like Josten for the job at least for now.
Coaches - Gavin Wilkinson, Amos McGee
Gavin is an old school Timber from his playing days, and he's had success in 2007 and trouble in 2008. I think he's earned a shot to keep his job in 2009, but the true question is whether his normal style of long passes and crosses will work with a team this creative. He seems to have let guys add their flair a bit on the pitch, which might be a sign of things to come, or it could mean that Gavin takes more control later if the wheels fall off. This is by far the most talent he's had in his years here, so if the team can't win, I don't expect him to be able to keep his job. Amos McGee joins the team from Minnesota, where he was a Hall of Fame coach for many years, and he'll focus on assisting Gavin with the first team and coaching the U-23 team.
Outlook: Winning takes care of the issues here. If they win, Gavin will be fine, if not, he doesn't have much of a leash here.
Our next game is May 9th in Cleveland, and you can watch the game live on USL Live, or by visiting the Soccer City USA board (http://www.soccercityusa.com/) and finding a viewing site for Saturday. So far, Beulahland and Rogue Pub are confirmed for Saturday, but check there for more locations.