Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Now That The Preseason Is Done, What Do We Know About The Timbers?

Timbers Army, North End, section 107, TA, banner
Same as it ever was. Looking forward to what we see in 2018
So the 2018 MLS pre-season is done for the Portland Timbers with 2 wins, 1 draw and 2 losses in 5 official matches in Arizona. While traveling back to Portland for a week of training and playing a few other unofficial matches down in Arizona, local fans have had to rely upon web feeds of matches and Twitter updates to learn about their favorite MLS club so far. Normally, the Timbers have a local pre-season tournament on site, but they weren't able to do this because of construction at Providence Park for the planned expansion of the ground's eastern wall. Suffice to say, it's made for an oddly disjointed preparation to 2018 - normally by now, there would have been an open practice and full media day to get to know the team and coaches. While the end result of the construction will be awesome to add seats to the park, the timeline not only impacts the pre-season but the regular season schedule - home fans won't see the Timbers at home until April 14 in their sixth match of the year. Portland will have already played on the road against the Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas, Chicago Fire and Orlando City SC before Minnesota United FC travels to the Rose City.

So officially, we can say the Timbers scored 10 goals in their 5 matches with 7 coming in their last 2 matches versus the Red Bulls (New York played a mostly reserve lineup due to a CCL match) and Sporting KC. After slow starts in their losses to Seattle and FC Dallas in between the draw with Houston, we saw a much more composed offense as the calendar moved closer to March. Samuel Armenteros, the latest signee to the club officially on February 9, has lit up the goal in his various pre-season appearances with 4 goals which gave him the Golden Boot award for the Mobile Mini Sun Cup tournament. Many have remarked at the tremendous amount of speed that exists within Coach Gio Savarese's side, especially along the midfield wings - and watching various pre-season matches, I can agree with that assessment. The 2017 Timbers were thought to have good pace throughout the roster, but in adding Andy Polo, Andres Flores and Eryk Williamson while keeping Victor Arboleda and Jack Barmby about, the collective core of this group is actually faster. If the Timbers are able to harness this speed with some creativity within the attack, there won't be many defenses that could keep pace with this bunch. After the final preseason match with center back Rennico Clarke being waived on February 12 and defender Chance Myers waived on February 28, the Timbers now officially sit with 29 signed players right before the 2018 roster compliance date:

MLS, Portland Timbers, Adi, Timbers, striker,
He's back. And hopefully hungry for goal
Goalkeepers (3): Jeff Attinella, Jake Gleeson, Kendall McIntosh
Wing Defenders (4): Marco Farfan, Vytas, Alvas Powell, Zarek Valetin
Center Backs (6): Liam Ridgewell, Larrys Mabiala, Roy Miller, Julio Cascante, Bill Tuiloma, Modou Jadama
Defensive Midfielders (4): David Guzman, Diego Chara, Lawrence Olum, Cristhian Paredes
Attacking Midfielders (7): Sebastian Blanco, Dairon Asprilla, Diego Valeri, Jack Barmby, Victor Arboleda, Eryk Williamson, Andres Flores
Forwards (5): Fanendo Adi, Jeremy Ebobisse, Foster Langsdorf, Andy Polo, Samuel Armenteros

Current Trialists (3): M Dustin Corea, GK Alex Mangels, M Renzo Zambrano
Timbers Super Draft Selections (4): D Caleb Duvernay (61, N.C. State), F Tim Mueller (63, Oregon State), F Stuart Holthusen (64, University of Akron), F Mamadou Guirassay (87, New Jersey Institute of Technology)
Timbers On Loan (1): Lucas Melano, Estudiantes

Timbers Designated Players (3): Fanendo Adi, Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri
Generation Adidas Players (0):
Timbers Home Grown Players (3): Marco Farfan, Eryk Williamson, Foster Langsdorf

International Players (8 total, potential green card candidates in italics): Victor Arboleda, Samuel Armenteros, Sebastian Blanco, Julio Cascante, Larrys Mabiala, Cristhian Paredes, Andy Polo, Bill Tuiloma (NOTE: Vytas, Liam Ridgewell, David Guzman & Jack Barmby received their green cards in 2017 offseason)

Timbers 2 Roster (7): D Lamar Batista, D Harold Hanson, M Andre Lewis, M Terrell Lowe, D Max Ornstil, F Augustine Williams, M Renzo Zambrano

After the dust has settled with just 4 days before the 2018 MLS season starts, what can we safely say we know about the Portland Timbers with any certainty as March rolls in? We have 34 matches to get everything sorted out before October - that we can all be certain about. Anything else we saw during pre-season and practices could change at a moment's notice, especially noting how form and injury can alter any well thought-out tactics. To quote our former coach, it's important for the Timbers to keep their highs low and their lows high with proper perspective. No team wins a championship in the first month of the season, but it can certainly be impacted or slowed down. The 2015 MLS Cup side started out the year slowly, but peaked as the calendar turned to summer and the rest is history, but that's not the only way to win a trophy. Last year's winner, Toronto FC, was simply outstanding from start to finish with only a few hiccups along the way, while we aren't that far removed from FC Dallas nearly pulling off the treble of winning MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup and Supporters' Shield all in one campaign.

Portland Timbers, MLS, Timbers, Providence Park, Portland
Sebastian Blanco has been in camp and seeming very engaged. which is good.
It's just in reading social media and other outlets, there has already been tremendous discussion about what the Timbers need to do, and they haven't even played a meaningful match yet in 2018. In the action witnessed, I can't even point to any of the matches where I felt the team put together a comprehensive 90 minutes of work either - it was good in stretches, not so good in others with a few sprinkles of awful thrown in for comparison. Since it's still February for a few hours, this isn't the worst thing that could be said about Portland at this point - considering that Savarese and his coaches haven't even put a full strategy yet. This doesn't mean that there aren't questions that need to be answered within the first 2 to 3 months of the year, but for me, keeping the expectations as simple as possible is paramount for me. It might not be as interesting to write about as a juggernaut or a complete dumpster fire, but in keeping the perspective simple doesn't mean that I'm not looking to Savarese to address a few key components.

Center Back Questions: I like Ridgewell and Mabiala because of their experience and calm under pressure, but they aren't the fastest players. Not that the Timbers need blazing speed in central defense as they possess it nearly everywhere else, but Portland has been pried open in the pre-season when Liam or Larrys is off their line by the slightest and they just don't have the recovery speed to fix the issue. Portland's record with Ridgewell starting is very good, and he's a great influence on the back line, but Savarese needs to decide if he's willing to take this approach because of stability or roll the dice eventually with Cascante, Tuiloma or Jadama. The big question for the Timbers among many is how far can this defense carry them because offensively they will score goals; it's really all in how many they concede.

Play Some Of The Kids: Okay, I know this is the tagline of a podcast about Timbers 2 run by Kevin McCamish that talks about the Timbers' main affiliated side, but I'm stealing his tagline for this point. For some of the younger players, it's time to see what they can contribute - and I'm looking strictly at Marco Farfan. Based on the eye test and his statistics, I see him as very comparable to Vytas, Valentin and Powell and there isn't much of a drop. I'm not discounting Vytas' versatility, Valentin's scrappiness and Powell's - well, we like Alvas - but the disparity isn't so much to me that we shouldn't see more of Farfan provided he is healthy. I compare this to the situation with Ebobisse, who I like his long term prognosis as a striker, but I can't see Savarese benching or reducing minutes for Adi or Armenteros at this point based on history and the eye test. The difference between the second year striker and the 2 veterans is wide enough that I'm expecting to see one or more of the veteran strikers as consistent starters, especially considering the form Armenteros is on right now.

Portland Timbers, MLS, Timbers, defense, right back, Providence Park
I hope to see a lot of this guy in 2018. 
The Diego Chara Quandary: Chara has been nothing but pure class since he joined Portland in 2011, and he's contributed to the toughness and organization on the pitch. When he's not available, the central midfield has been erratic to account for all the skills Chara possesses - making quality passes, defending, creating turnovers, executing well timed fouls. With Diego still healing and getting to fitness after last year's broken foot, the question has been who to pair Guzman with. The options at this point are Olum, a player who spent most of 2017 playing center back due to injuries, and newly signed Paredes. Paredes has been much more composed and solid, but at just 19 years old, is he too raw to be thrown in at the start? While I'm thinking Olum starts initially, I think Paredes will push for time, and this will be interesting to see how it shakes out, especially since Guzman will be out for some time this summer playing in World Cup 2018 for Costa Rica. Portland has always been trying to find the long term replacement for Chara, and maybe we are seeing it happen, but at the same point, I don't see Chara exactly going away anytime soon either.

Stick To Master Plan: Savarese has said over and over that he wants to use various combinations based upon fitness and matchups, but that the players that play are the ones that put in the work. I've heard more than a few people state that there are Timbers that should play each week no matter what, and I'm not entirely convinced that is a good idea. Nobody should be using their history to justify their starting role if they aren't willing to work - although history does give some indication to any potential. I love Valeri and what he's done for this franchise, but I still want him to be hungry and fight for his spot like anybody else - and if need be, give him a chance to rest now and then if needed. Squad rotation is paramount over a long season, and while it would be great if Diego repeated his 2017 performance in terms of goals scored and assists, it's important that this offense remain balanced and hungry. That means keeping players fresh, rotating where needed to keep up peak effort, and mixing things up enough to throw off opposing defenses.

I hope to return to this view for game days. And maybe see the real Nat about.
Pick A Starting Keeper: I don't necessarily care who starts for the Timbers at this point, as Gleeson and Attinella both have good points and areas where improvement is needed. Attinella showed an ability to be consistent down the stretch in 2017, which has been a knock on him over his career when Gleeson was injured but I imagine that both will get ample looks to see who works best with the backline. Portland hasn't had a consistent starter in goal since 2015 when Adam Kwarasey earned the majority of the starts, so it's paramount to find the player that works best overall. 2016 saw Gleeson take over for Kwarasey when he was injured, and his performance was enough that Adam was traded away upon his recovery; Gleeson remained the starter in 2017 until he was injured and Attinella took over late in the year. Playing a consistent keeper is usually a strong component for a cup run, so it will be imperative to find which one of these guys is the long term answer.

Don't Panic. Seriously: With Armemteros being in such great form early, Polo and Flores contributing well and Blanco resuming his solid efforts, there have been lots of speculation about moves. Many of them involve selling a certain striker that has been a consistent scorer, but his 2017 ended with a hamstring injury and a very lengthy and frustrating recovery. Now healthy, a healthy Fanendo Adi will give the Timbers another viable attacking and scoring option that teams must prepare for. Just because of the strong start of others doesn't mean a trade is a good option at this point. Adi's injury last year left the team with only 2 healthy forwards in the stretch run - and the team traded away one of those options in the offseason. With 5 forwards on the roster and plenty of questions for each - Can Adi stay healthy? Can Armenteros keep up the pace? How will Ebobisse evolve in his second season? Can Langsdorf bring his collegiate success in scoring to MLS? Can Polo find his place within the offense - now isn't the time for any rash moves.

I'm getting more excited about the season starting this weekend, and while predictions will be forthcoming soon, I'm looking forward to writing more about Timbers Army history over the next few months as well. The start of the season is a great indicator that the spring and summer months are coming soon, and there will be plenty of exciting and potentially frustrating moments forthcoming. It's always an entertaining ride, especially for those that are RCTID. Bring on 2018!!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Timbers Roster Update After First 2 Weeks of Pre-Season

Portland Timbers, Chicago Fire, Providence Park, Timbers, forwards, Adi, penalty kick
Having this guy be healthy is paramount for success in 2018 for Portland.
It's been quite a while since we've had any Portland Timbers soccer to watch up close, but seeing match action always signals that we are getting close to the 2018 regular season getting started. There's plenty to determine before Portland officially takes the pitch versus the Los Angeles Galaxy at StubHub Center on March 4, but for now, Timbers Coach Gio Saravese will get his first chances to see his charges in match action. The Timbers started off the pre-season slate with a draw against the San Jose Earthquakes on January 31 that featured 3 different groups playing 30 minute periods with just regulars Alvas Powell and Diego Chara sitting out for injury. Powell continues to recover from a sprained wrist that the Timbers have been very careful with, while Chara continues to rehab from a broken foot suffered in the Houston playoff series that ended the 2017 MLS season. Powell was able to participate in match number 2 on February 3 when Portland battled their rivals from the North, the Seattle Sounders FC, as a starter but left after 40 minutes while Chara didn't appear. However, every healthy player - except for Roy Miller who is still recovering from the ruptured Achilles that ended his 2017 season - has now appeared in game action for Savarese to see up close and personal. Diego Valeri scored early in the first half for Portland, but the Sounders got goals in both halves to post a 2 to 1 victory. Portland now gets a bit of a break before returning to Arizona for 4 additional preseason matches between February 14 and 24, which gives us a chance to look at the current make up of the roster.

Roster compliance day is approximately March 1, 2018, so for now, the Timbers don't have to worry about roster composition just yet. With thoughts circling about that the team is going after another forward to help up top (rumors persist that the Timbers are going after Swedish striker Samuel Armenteros), Timbers Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson has been very busy filling the roster with adding midfielder Cristhian Paredes to the active roster on February 2. Following the transactions that aided the defense (Julio Cascante, Modou Jadama, Bill Tuiloma), forwards (Andy Polo, Foster Langsdorf) and midfield (Eryk Williamson, Andres Flores, this transaction fortifies the central midfield by adding reinforcements for a recovering Diego Chara (injured in the 2017 playoffs) and accounting for David Guzman's time away this summer for the World Cup. What it also signals is adding youth to a club that needed to add some balance age wise: Olum Ridgewell & Miller are currently 33 while Chara and Valeri are 31, but adding Paredes (19), Polo (23), Williamson (21) and Tuiloma (22) bring some balance to the overall mix. If we do a big overview of how the roster shapes out now, the Timbers have an intriguing balance of experience and youth, speed and savvy, and interesting potential within their group:
Portland Timbers, Timbers, goalkeepers, Providence Park, New Zealand
Are you team Jake or team Jeff?

Goalkeepers (3): Jeff Attinella, Jake Gleeson, Kendall McIntosh
Wing Defenders (5): Marco Farfan, Vytas, Alvas Powell, Zarek Valetin, Chance Myers
Center Backs (7): Liam Ridgewell, Larrys Mabiala, Roy Miller, Rennico Clarke, Julio Cascante, Bill Tuiloma, Modou Jadama
Defensive Midfielders (4): David Guzman, Diego Chara, Lawrence Olum, Cristhian Paredes
Attacking Midfielders (7): Sebastian Blanco, Dairon Asprilla, Diego Valeri, Jack Barmby, Victor Arboleda, Eryk Williamson, Andres Flores
Forwards (4): Fanendo Adi, Jeremy Ebobisse, Foster Langsdorf, Andy Polo, Samuel Armenteros

Current Trialists (3): M Dustin Corea, GK Alex Mangels, M Renzo Zambrano
Timbers Super Draft Selections (4): D Caleb Duvernay (61, N.C. State), F Tim Mueller (63, Oregon State), F Stuart Holthusen (64, University of Akron), F Mamadou Guirassay (87, New Jersey Institute of Technology)
Timbers On Loan (1): Lucas Melano, Estudiantes

Timbers Designated Players (3): Fanendo Adi, Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri
Generation Adidas Players (0):
Timbers Home Grown Players (3): Marco Farfan, Eryk Williamson, Foster Langsdorf

International Players (10 total, potential green card candidates in italics): Vytas, Sebastian Blanco, Julio Cascante, Rennico Clarke, Larrys Mabiala, Cristhian Paredes, Andy Polo, Liam Ridgewell, Bill Tuiloma, Samuel Armenteros (NOTE: David Guzman & Jack Barmby received their green cards in 2017 offseason)

Timbers 2 Roster (10): D Lamar Batista, M Blake Bodily, M Tomas Granitto, GK Wade Hamilton, D Harold Hanson, M Andre Lewis, M Terrell Lowe, D Max Ornstil, F Augustine Williams, M Renzo Zambrano

The news that striker Samuel Armenteros is officially in town and was officially signed soon does change the complexion of the club roster greatly. After photos of Armeteros at Portland International Airport hit social media and several tweets indicating a medical exam had occurred, the rumors became very official days later when the team confirmed his addition. Armenteros does have a decent scoring pedigree, and at 27 years old, he could provide a scoring punch for many more seasons. Portland used targeted allocation money (TAM is designed to either pay down a salary number currently on the books, but it can also be used to bring down a proposed salary number for a new player) to bring Armenteros aboard on a loan deal for 2018, but they have the right for a purchase option for subsequent seasons. The signing brings the current roster to 31 signed players not including draft picks, so the Timbers would be 1 over the current allotted 30 if the season started today. All the moves bring intriguing talent and depth across the board, but it does add even more complexity for Savarese and his coaches to determine the starting mix of players that will begin play for the Timbers in March and appear regularly. If we break down the position battles in each category, there's still plenty of queries that need to be addressed before the season opener against the Galaxy in California on March 4.

Portland Timbers, Timbers, defense, Providence Park, center backs, smiling Larrys
Yes, Larrys, we found some healthy center backs to play soccer with you.
Goalkeepers: So who really is the starter of this club? Honestly, there are good and bad points for each person in the current mix, so it will be up to Guillermo Valencia to find out which keeper is going to work best in the new system being employed. Savarese wants the keepers to be an outlet on the attack and be comfortable with the ball at their feet to either trigger the offense or relieve pressure, so this will be a very different approach from what we've seen in previous seasons. Attinella is very good at commanding the goal area and making solid decisions in traffic under pressure, but he's also had bouts of inconsistent play during his career. Gleeson has the best reflexes of the group and can make very good reaction saves when called upon, but when left to make a decision with time, he can be indecisive. McIntosh might be the most athletic of the three, and was easily one of the better players on the Timbers 2 roster last year with highlight reel saves and penalty stops. However, the entire T2 defense was a disaster and it might be difficult to know how much McIntosh was responsible for the conceded goals. Each keeper has advantages even if they aren't "the complete package", but the best part is that the team seems very comfortable with any of them in the back. I give Attinella a slight edge because of experience and leadership, but I also expect that Portland will go with the hot hand at the time depending on status. Gleeson was playing fairly well last year until injury put him on the shelf, and Attinella took over the job for the rest of the 2017 season.

Wing Defenders: Will the real Alvas Powell finally show up in 2018? He's always seemed to be on the cusp of something great, but his performance has usually been erratic at best if he's not injured. At times, his contributions to the offense can't offset the issues in defending, but it's followed up by a great defensive effort yet no aid to the attack. While I think the veteran combination of Vytas and Valentin will get the bulk of the minutes and Farfan will press for spot appearances as he gains exposure and confidence, this group will only get stronger if Powell can contribute consistently, especially on both ends. I'm still expecting Savarese to employ overlapping runs on offense and distribution from the fullbacks, so this group will need to stand up and be heard regularly if the Timbers are going to have any success this year. Vytas is the best crosser of the group and Valentin is the unsung heart, but if Powell can tap into his potential, it could rise the entire profile of this group from average to exceptional. It's great to have someone with a ton of experience with Myers available off the bench, but much like 2017, Myers would only really appear if there are significant injuries or absences to the other players.

Portland Timbers, Timbers, Providence Park, MLS, MLS Soccer
Sebastian Blanco become more valuable as 2017 progressed. On to 2018!
Center Backs: I have always made the joke that center backs for the Timbers are like drummers from the movie "Spinal Tap", but the joke wore thin in 2017 as Portland suffered several significant injuries to their group. Ridgewell appeared in 15 matches, but the man signed for significant minutes, Gbenga Arokoyo, was injured in pre-season and replaced alternately by Miller and Olum. Mabiala was signed mid-season mostly because of Ridgewell's absence, but he ended up being the strongest center later in the year. With Arokoyo gone now as part of the Nagbe trade, Miller still recovering from injury during the 2017 playoffs, Clarke's status still unknown due to injuries of his own, Portland needed to add depth, which they did by adding Cascante and Jadama. Cascante is young and raw, but has enough talent that he should be able to push for minutes, while I actually expect to see Olum more in his natural position in the defensive midfield, so the major minutes should rotate between Mabiala, Cascante and Ridgewell with Jadama and Clarke being key reserves. The most intriguing name in this group was Tuiloma, signed to Timbers 2 late in 2017 who scored 3 goals in 11 appearances. The team made him a bona fide offer to stay in Portland, but they didn't reach contract terms until mid-January and his addition does add some youth to the mix. Savarese has always said he will play those that work hard and are in form, but I imagine that Ridgewell and Mabiala will be the top choices at center back health permitting. By the end of the year, however, that could change if the youngsters are able to perform - I wouldn't be shocked if we saw a Cascante - Tuiloma pairing at some point.

Defensive Midfielder: Let's be perfectly honest, as long as Chara and Guzman are healthy and available, they will plug into the central midfielder each and every week. Between organizing the first line of defense, creating turnovers, frustrating attacking midfielder and providing distribution for the offense or defense, Diego and David are huge keys for the Timbers. Their status, however, is a bit up in the air - Chara broke his foot during the playoffs and is close to returning to full practice, while Guzman will be with the Costa Rican national team this summer for the 2018 World Cup. With both players also being among the leaders on the team in cautions and any suspensions for accumulation, having depth here is a huge priority for Portland. While Olum and Valentin can provide cover here - Olum was actually signed for depth here and Valentin has filled in admirably when needed - it's the acquisition of Paredes that has folks excited. While still in his teens, Paredes has shown similar skills in distribution and creating turnovers in previous stops, and if he's able to continue this trend and further expand on his skills, he could eventually be the heir apparent in the midfield in a few years. I don't expect Chara to go anywhere anytime soon, but having a viable succession plan is paramount for this team.

Portland Timbers, Timbers, timbers defenders, youth, Timbers 2
Adding veterans is good, but this is a big offseason to cultivate Timbers youth.
Attacking Midfielders: I love Valeri and his skill set, but I am very worried if the Timbers need to count upon a repeat of his 2017 MVP season where he tallied 21 goals and 11 assists. If he puts up comparable numbers within a balanced, dynamic offense, this would be really exciting to watch as Portland would likely exceed the 60 goal mark scored once again. However, if he ends up having to bear the brunt of the scoring punch in 2018, it could make for a very long season. The Timbers don't have Darlington Nagbe anymore, but they kept Blanco and Asprilla as the attacking wings with Barmby, Arboleda and Flores being the substitutes with Williamson being slotted more in the center like Valeri. There is a tremendous amount of speed and talent here, and if Blanco can continue his progression from his late season play in 2017 plus Asprilla continue to mine his talent, this trio will cause headaches for most MLS defenses. I love seeing Barmby's scrappiness on the pitch, and I surmise he will make a few appearances over the year, but it will be interesting to see if Arboleda can break into a more regular substitute role. Flores is really a utility midfielder who can play in lots of spots on the pitch, so that versatility can be very useful if Savarese needs to cover a position during a match for injury or just wants to shake up the attack as needed. This group will be as successful as Valeri in 2018, but the question will be if Diego is the sole contributor or if he will be the leader of a very powerful group of attacking players. I'm betting on more of the latter, especially with Blanco having a full camp to get acclimated.

Forwards: The Timbers offense was successful for most of 2017 until Adi was injured in August playing the Los Angeles Galaxy. While the group continued to score reasonably well, the threat of having a consistent scorer as the lone striker was diminished greatly when Darren Mattocks and Ebobisse were the main options. While both forwards had moments of greatness, it didn't measure up to what Fanendo was able to do when healthy and available. Adi is back and ready to go, and while Mattocks has packed his bags to head to D.C. United for this year, Ebobisse is back as well. The two have some big company with the additions of Polo, Langsdorf and Armenteros. Langsdorf completed a very successful collegiate career as an accomplished scorer while also being a member of the Timbers Academy, so adding his as a Home Grown Player was a huge coup for Portland. The other two adds had some intrigue to them - Polo was targeted for several weeks before his services were eventually acquired, but there were several moments where the deal looked dead. Armenteros was a late add to the side on a loan deal, but his pedigree as an accomplished scorer just adds more spice to a quintet that already has powerful options. We might not see as much of Adi as the lone striker or there might actually be a rotation of talent depending upon form, but what Savarese has here is differing options. Adi can hold the ball in traffic well, distribute and find supporting runs, which actually mirrors much of what Ebobisse brings to the table, while I would consider Langsdorf more of a traditional soccer scorer. The elements of speed with Polo and headiness with Armenteros means the Timbers could employ 4 - 3 - 3 or 4 - 4 - 2 and still possess dangerous options up top.

timbers army, north end, section 107, TA,
I think these guys and gals are ready for March. 
So What Does This All Mean? In the simplest of terms, Portland can now employ a wide variety of attacks and defenses with actually having players to employ those styles. While last year's group had some of the same skill sets, the Timbers were caught with depth issues at forward and center back that held them back from being within MLS elite in 2017 - yet the team still finished top of the Western Conference while securing a Cascadia Cup along the way. If you would have told me this group could trade away Nagbe and come away stronger in the process, I might not have believed it but it appears initially to be true. Portland will miss Nagbe's ability to hold the ball and dribble in traffic, but what they were able to do with the move is add depth to the wings and bring on young talent for the next few seasons. The real keys here are the health of the center backs to keep the group solid and fresh, but my initial thoughts are that Cascante, Tuiloma and Jadama have been solid enough to allay some concerns. The Timbers get a brutal 5 match away stretch to start 2018, and while they get a long home stand in late July and early August, their schedule in late August and early September features 2 cross country trips and compressed fixtures. With several other teams making big moves in the Western Conference, the ability to repeat won't be easy - but I like their chances as of right now. Some of these moves will also help Timbers 2, which really had issues on both sides of the ball. Getting some of the younger players meaningful minutes will be paramount to development, especially for the Timbers in future campaigns. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Timbers Army History, 2005: When Sunderland Came Calling

section 107, timbers army, flag, North End, USL era, Portland Timbers
The Sunshine Flag from back in the day. A long time ago in a section far away.
Yesterday, I received my 2018 107ist packet with the current membership card. It's always exciting to read about the achievements of our incredibly expansive group, but it also reminds me of how far this group has come since I first joined. While my friend Obi and I attended the infamous Timbers playoff match with Hershey back in 2001, we didn't officially become Timbers Army members until late 2004. It's hard to fathom that 14 years later, many of the friends that I still have are due to getting involved with the Timbers Army. That fact was further emphasized with a recent email I received from another football friend, Gary. For long time Timbers fans, you might know him as Gary SAFC Lamb or Gary the Mackem.

The time was 2005 and the English club Sunderland, just promoted to the Premiership after a long dry spell, was completing the Cascadia trifecta for their preseason training. With all 3 clubs still in the USL, it was quite the tour in late June to start in Canada with the Whitecaps, venture south for a visit in Flounderville to then finish in the Rose City. I remember July 23 greatly as Obi and I started our day with breakfast at the Kingston at 8 AM followed by a full tour of the neighborhood all day before the match. While the game itself ended in a scoreless draw, the atmosphere was electric and the attendance was one of the bigger crowds all year. Little did I know that meeting these soccer loving folks from Northern England would change my life so much over the years in the process.

107ist, Timbers Army, membership cards, TA
My collective of 107ist cards. Yeah, I have a few.
Gary had joined our message board, Soccer City USA, and laid out plans for the match. He then extended an invitation to anyone that wanted to come out to Sunderland to see a match the following April. I had been on the fence about going until I got a call Labor Day weekend about my mom. She was declining due to cancer, but in one of our last conversations, I told her about my Timbers Army friends and the chance to go to England to watch soccer. I thought she would tell me it was a stupid idea, which was her usual mode of operations, but instead, she told me to go because you'll never get another chance like this again. She died 5 days later, and I'd made a promise to go. In 2006, I was one of 31 Timbers Army fans that invaded Sunderland for a dizzying trip full of soccer, crazy accents and more alcohol that I could reasonably consume. The trip was indeed legendary, but it was followed up in 2007 when Gary, his wife Jackie and their dear friend Paulie came to Portland for a visit. In 2008, my wife and I visited Seaham on the first stop of our 3 week honeymoon and were treated like true royalty of sorts. While it's been years since I've actually seen Gary, we still talk via email about life and soccer periodically.

We talk a lot about knowing your history, and in Gary's recent email to me, he wanted to share the details of their football tour from their perspective in all 3 cities. For those lucky enough to be part of the Timbers and the Army at that point, it might bring back some memories of a really fun, but tiring weekend. For those that weren't part of this, this tale reminds me so much of embracing the experience of being a soccer supporter and sharing the love of the game with others. Bonding over the love of soccer is one of the true passions of the game, and while Gary's tale is long, it's rich with commentary about our city and fans with some digs about out friends up north. My hope is that this year, I take some time to share these historical stories from my perspective. As much as events get talked about, it's also important to write about them and share the experience, too. Here is Gary's tale in his own words, enjoy!


Our club announced that our 2005 pre-season tour would be in on the North West coast of Canada & the USA, taking in games at Wankcouver, Shittle & Portland. As soon as the details were released, flight & travel arrangements were sorted within a few days, and everyone was looking forward to another new adventure.

The rest of our party were flying direct to Vancouver, but I had to fly to Dallas first to accompany a friend (Fraser) who is shit scared of flying. With great planning Fraser & I arrived in Vancouver, just a few hours before the rest of our party, and we all headed straight down to the car-hire desk to pick up the 10 seater mini-bus, so we could get to our hotel.

Prior to leaving the UK I had booked all our hotels through the Ramada Hotel chain, and searched for info on the teams we were playing. When I came across the soccercityusa board, where the response from those on the board was amazing, so much so that we were so glad the Timbers game was the last on the tour, even though a few (Ultras) had told us to keep away, but everyone else told us that when you meet these guys they were really friendly, unless the Timbers were playing Shittle. This proved to be the case.

Anyway back to the adventure, we made our way across Vancouver to our hotel, which was situated only ½ a mile from Vancouver’s ground, arriving on the Wednesday evening around 8.00pm. BUT!!!  We were not aware that we were right in the heart of the red light district, and the girls used our hotel for there clients. It was a bit of an eye-opener, but the hotel had a fantastic sports bar which would stay open all long as someone wanted a drink. So, you can imagine the sore heads the following morning.

This is Swangard Stadium, former home of the Whitecaps in Burnaby BC.
Trying to get the guys out of bed the following day proved a nightmare, due to a mixture of jetlag & drink. Finally at about 3pm we were all ready to hit Vancouver, for a bit of sight-seeing, before we carried straight on for a night on the town. (Taxis back to the hotel at 4am when you’re a tourist and very drunk, WHAT A RIP-OFF)

The next day (Fri) no arrangements had been made, just a lazy day around the hotel pool, something to eat, and a night in the hotel sports bar. During the course of the day lots of familiar faces and accents started arriving at the hotel, as more & more Sunderland supporters descended on Vancouver for tomorrow’s game. By late evening the bar had around 2-300 Sunderland supporters in it, and to make the evening even better the entertainment that night was a beautiful stripper, who was inviting some of the Guys on stage, for a bit of fun. (no names given, but it wasn’t  for the married men, who got on stage, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination)

So game day arrived, and with even more Sunderland supporters hitting our hotel sports bar before the game, it was hard to believe that we were some 6,000 miles from home. The singing & chanting were excellent and gradually got louder as the beers & ciders disappeared. 15 mins before kick-off and the bar emptied as we made our way to the ground (Can I really call it a ground) it was more like a grassed area with a fence around it, and hired in seating. Anyway the game was a bit of a damp squid, and the only entertainment of the day was the Sunderland fans rushing the corporate bleachers behind the goal, to get at some “Dickhead” wearing a Scumcastle shirt. (His brains were obviously up his arse, when he made the decision to wear his “Bar-code” shirt to a Sunderland game, or, he had a death wish)

So it was back to our hotel sports bar after the game, and word had obviously spread about during the game where everyone was going for a drink afterwards, as our bar had ½ hour queues waiting to serve thirsty Mackems. Great weather meant the back doors were opened to the car-park area, to accommodate the Red & Whites. Extra security was called in and the manager took the unusual decision that only Sunderland supporters were allowed in. This had me thinking, has a bar in Canada ever barred the locals to allow it to be taken over by football supporters from England. All I can remember is; “WHAT A NIGHT WE HAD”

Portland Timbers, Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, Whitecaps, PGE Park, Portland
Timbers vs. Whitecaps had a much different look back when. 
Next day the mini-bus was loaded as we headed for Seattle (sorry I mean Shittle) but first we had to cross the Canada/USA border, no-one prepared us for this. A 2 hour traffic jam, waiting to cross, and a van full of English football fans, not recommended at U.S. borders. They off-loaded us from the van and ushered us into the checking area while they sent the drug sniffing dogs around us, then into the mini-bus.  Are U.S. border guards told that they are not allowed to smile? We were held for another 2 ½  hours while they checked each one of us over, one by one, not even allowing any of us to go outside for a cigarette once we were cleared. Not until everyone was checked were we finally allowed on our way, where the final guard even had the cheek to say “Enjoy your stay in the U.S.  (It’s a good job he didn’t hear the reply from some of the guys)

So finally we were on the Highway in the USA, heading for Shittle, arriving just in time for the evening rush-hour, anyway after battling horrendous traffic we seemed to be heading well out of the city to our hotel, which was situated in Tacoma (close to the airport) We finally arrived at the hotel around 5.30pm and were greeted by the hotel manager who was a really strange character, a member of some really weird religious group, the guys in our group nick-named him “The Freak”

We settled into our rooms and arranged to meet in the lobby half an hour later, ready to hit the town. “The Freak” told us where to catch a bus into the city, which was a 45min journey, I can remember passing some kind of aircraft museum on the way in, and passing the football stadium, before arriving in town. As time was getting on we simply just had a bar-crawl ending up in some Irish bar close to the fish market, down a small alleyway. Not being a fish eater, the smell in the area was horrendous, almost as bad as the smell when you cross the Tyne Bridge into Newcastle.

Later on in the night the Sunderland players descended on this Irish bar, and we found out that the bar were sponsors of our game against Shittle. After a few more drinks, posters and banners around the pub disappeared as we all wanted a few mementos to take home, and by the end of the night we were up on the tables singing and chanting our songs as the players watched on in amazement. I don’t think the clubs new players could believe how many Sunderland fans had made the journey over, but eventually after a few more drinks we even had them singing along with us, as it was their night off and the manager (Mick McCarthy) had told them they could let their hair down. As you can imagine nights like this don’t happen very often, so we really made the most of it, not leaving the pub until around 4.30am. (Don’t ask me how we got back to the hotel, I haven’t got a clue)

Century Link Field, Seattle, Seattle Sounders, Sounders, Portland, Portland Timbers. USL Soccer, 2006 season
The place still smells after all these years. 
Sometime the following day we decided to go back into town for a bit of sightseeing, taking in a tour of the “football” stadium, a trip up that big tower thing, (I think it’s called the”Needle”) and a look around the fish market area (The smell was still just as bad as before) It was a red hot day and as we were having a bite to eat in a pub quite close to the ground, when we took the decision to go back the hotel for a shower, and have a drink close to the hotel that evening. (BIG MISTAKE!!!!)

After a wash & brush up we gathered in the hotel bar for a drink and then headed out. We asked “The Freak” where the local bars were, but he replied that drinking was against his religion, and he didn’t have a clue where we could find one. So we just decided to take a walk and see where we ended up, as we left our hotel the manager from the hotel next door was just coming out, so we asked him about the local bars, this was when we were given a bit of an insight into the area we were in. He warned us that it was a really bad area for prostitutes and drugs, and advised us not to walk around on our own. But as a group of ten guys we thought we could handle it OK, and thanked him for his advice, but we did take his card, as he had a shuttle-bus, and he said to give him a call if we needed transport.

We were only about 100yds up the road when we came across some drug fuelled prostitute who asked us if we wanted any business, when we declined she told us in no uncertain terms to “F*ck off”

(As most of you are aware, in the area where we live back home, we don’t come across ghetto areas, full of blacks and prostitutes. None of us are racists but we simply don’t have a black population in our area, so this really was a totally different culture, and certainly an eye-opener for us)

So now, we were a little bit more on our guard, and headed up the road, the manager in the hotel next door had recommended a bar to us, and said it was the only “white” bar in the area, but it was approximately 2 miles up the road. As we carried on up we were approached on numerous occasions by beggars, drunks, and druggies all asking for money, so we were a bit relieved when we finally found the bar we were looking for. BUT!!! As we walked in you would have thought we were aliens from outer space, as the whole place went quiet for a few moments and everyone starred at us, but the female owner behind the bar was really friendly, and when she asked us where we were from, she bought a full round of drinks “on the house” and shouted to the locals “Calm down, they’re only tourists” she then told us that the area had many rival gangs, and the locals in her bar get a little on edge when strangers come in.

(Where the hell are we, now we are in the “headquarters of some Hispanic gang”)

Portland Timbers, Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Seattle, Century Link Field, USL Soccer, 2006 season, Timbers Army
This year's color is blue. Not to be confused with bule. Still hideous.
But to be honest we had no problems with them, until myself and one of our guys decided to have a friendly game of pool on one of the 2 “HUGE” pool tables. After 3-4 games of which I won all of them, one of the locals challenged me to a game for $10, I said I would only play for a pint, which he agreed to, he was an unbelievable player, but I beat him on the last ball, and he dually bought me a cider. BUT THEN!!! He wanted a re-match for $200 and his crowd all wanted to put on bets for big money against our guys. I declined and said I only play for a bit of fun, but some big guy in his crowd shouted over words to the effect of “You can’t come in our bar, beat our best player, and turn down a re-match, who do you guys think you are”

Thank God for the female owner, who calmed them all down, and told them they were not going to start any trouble with some guys from England (to be truthful, we were shitting ourselves) The atmosphere in the bar just wasn’t the same after this, and even though we didn’t have any more problems, and had a couple more drinks, you just had that feeling that we were not welcome. We finally decided to head back to the hotel, but first of all we needed something to eat, as we were starving. The female bar owner told us that the only place that would still be open at around midnight, would be the Wendy Burger place just over the road. We thanked her for her hospitality and headed across the road, passing some old tramp on the pavement, who we all gave our loose change too. Well, you always seem more sympathetic when you’ve had a few drinks.

We could see the big sign above Wendy’s advertising “Open 24hrs” so our belly’s were screaming for food, but when we got there the restaurant was closed, and only the drive through was open, and because we were not in a vehicle the snotty nose young kid at the serving hatch would not serve us, even though we offered her a $50 tip between us. So now what were we going to do, while we were trying to decide a Chinese looking guy pulled up to the hatch in a big black S.U.V. with his wife in the passenger seat. SO!!!! We asked him to take our order and gave him the money, he was very obliging and put in our huge order, which the snotty nosed kid agreed to serve as long as it was passed back through his car, before it was given to us. We waited in the car-park while the order was being put together, when we were approached by this HUGE black guy asking if we had any spare change, when we explained that we had just given all our spare change to the old tramp over the road, he said “You guys ain’t cops are you, and pulled out a gun, F*ck me I was shitting myself, we explained that we were just a bunch of guys from England, and not plain-clothed cops, he then said “well that’s OK cos I hate fucking cops and would have blown you away” and then just calmly walked away as if nothing had happened. Jesus I thought this was the “Land of the Free” we were in, not some Gangster movie.

We had planned to walk back to the hotel, but after collecting the food we headed straight back into the pub to use the phone and got the shuttle-bus back.

WE COULD NOT WAIT TO GET THE HELL OF THIS SHIT-HOLE. And we still had the next day (match day) and night to go.

The North End, 2006. Gary is very much a legend but the sign reinforced it.
We were up quite early the next day, still talking about our “experience” from the previous night, and we all agreed that we just needed to be heading out of Seattle ASAP.

The next morning we left the hotel about 10.30am and headed for downtown Shittle, dressed in our colours ready for the game, which didn’t kick-off till 7.30pm, but we wanted to soak up the atmosphere in the local bars around the ground, which were already packed with Sunderland fans when we got there. They were some great scenes during the day with Sunderland fans attracting quite a big crowd of onlookers as we were singing outside the pub, on the terrace area, which took up most of the wide pavement. Eventually it was time to go to the game, and I must say that after visiting the stadium the previous day, it is certainly a HUGE improvement on Vancouver. We had to endure really strict searches before we got in the ground at a security area which seemed to be about 200yds away from the ground. Again we didn’t really have much interest in the game, as we just look on pre-season tours as a big holiday on the drink, and the game becomes a bit of a blur, but I can remember a crowd of about 15-20 guys, one with a drum, trying to out-sing the Sunderland fans, the only chance they had of doing that was “NO F*CKING CHANCE”.

After the game I know we went back to that big Irish pub near the fish market, but that’s the last memory I have of the night (This cider makes you lose your memory)

The next day, we were finally on our way out of Shittle, and all we can say to all their citizens is;- “THIS IS THE SMELLIEST, MOST UNINVITING, SCARIEST, SHIT-HOLE WE HAVE EVER VISITED, ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD” no wonder the people from Portland call it “SHITTLE”

Portland Timbers, Portland, Seattle Sounders, Sounders, PGE Park, 2006 season, USL soccer, Cascadia Cup
Beating these guys never gets old. Ever.
After our experiences in Seattle, we started to wonder what kind of reception was awaiting us in Portland, and started to thinking about the threats from the “Ultras” prior to leaving the UK. Was Portland as just as bad as Seattle? Were their fans unwelcoming? Would we have a good time? All these thoughts were running around our minds.

We found our hotel close to the airport, arriving around 4.00pm on the Thursday and after settling in we headed into Town in our mini-bus parking up in a car-park somewhere close to the river, and walked into town, guess where we were heading, to the nearest bars but Newt had agreed not to drink as he was the nominated driver. I can’t remember the names of the bars but the first place we went was another Irish bar, where we had some food and you were allowed to smoke in the downstairs cellar area, which had a table footy game. After that we ended up in a bar which had a live rock band on, I remember there was a cover charge to get in, but the big guy on the door let us in for free, when he heard we were from England. Already Portland was giving us a good, friendly welcome, with everyone seeming to want to have a friendly chat. We didn’t stay out to long that night as we were all so tired after so many late drinking nights, but when we found our way back to the mini-bus, we had a parking ticket, and Newt insisted we paid it, even though the rest of us just said “tear it up” I went straight to bed when we got back to the hotel, but, Carl, Marsey, Randle, Carls dad Brian & Keith had a bit of a party back in their room, with loads of bottles and cans from the Liquor store, and they phoned a pizza delivery place, who brought along the biggest pizzas I’ve ever seen in my life. Their hotel room the next day looked as if it had had a terrorist attack, with bits of pizzas and empty bottles lying all over. The cleaner refused to clean it up, THAT’S HER BLOODY JOB, ISN’T IT??? Well she won’t be getting a tip.

The next day (Fri) we got the MAX into town and went looking for PGE  park, and the Bullpen pub, we could see into the ground through the fence and took a few pictures, before we went into the Bullpen, where we were greeted by the friendliest bar-tender I’ve ever met I’m sure her name was Kathy, and she said that she had heard that a lot of Sunderland fans were expected in town, she made a couple of phone calls to a few Timbers fans and invited us back on the evening, saying that a few of them would come along, for a few drinks with us. After a beautiful meal and another few drinks, we thanked her and said we would be back that evening.

We then walked back into town and the fact that we were wearing our colours, everyone seemed to be saying to us welcome to Portland, and enjoy the game tomorrow. Even cars were tooting their horns and waving at us, at last we seemed to be in a City that knew their football, were friendly, and very welcoming, but nothing could prepare us for what would happen that night.

Bullpen, Cheerful Bullpen,
The Bullpen, the site of many drinks during the visit from Sunderland fans.
We did a bit of shopping in town, and a look around, before we got the MAX back to the hotel for a shower & to get changed ready for the night. By this time we were really looking forward to our stay in Portland, what a huge difference from Shittle.

All spruced up and refreshed, it was back on the MAX and heading for the Bullpen, where we were expecting around 20-30 Timbers fans, but when we opened the door we received the best greeting of our lives, with around 150-200 Timbers fans eagerly awaiting our arrival, they adorned us with scarves, pin-badges and numerous other bits of Timbers memorabilia, and they would not let us buy a drink, at one point I had 7 pints of Woodchuck Cider in front of me, and all the other Sunderland fans had pints put in front of them, with every Timbers fan refusing to accept a drink back from us. Your hospitality, friendliness, and fantastic songs and chants are unrivalled anywhere in the world, no matter where we have been following Sunderland. I would like to mention each and every one of you by name, but I think that would be totally unfair as I’d probably miss someone out.      


I can’t remember what time we left the Bullpen, as we were enjoying ourselves so much, but I can remember that Kathy eventually called time, as she was running out of drink. Even so, that wasn’t the end of the night, we were invited back to a house party at big Abe’s house, with it’s own bar/brewery, a live band, lots of nice single girls (just ask Randle) and a Guy called Brian. This was the first time I had met Barnacle, who was wearing a white dress shirt with Black pin stripes. I told him that it looked bloody awful as it looked too much like a Newcastle shirt, (at this time I was unaware that Barnacle/Brian was a “Skunk” ) When he revealed that he was a Scumcastle fan, we ended up having a fun-fight where I tried to rip that awful shirt off his back. (I ended up with gravel burns from Abe’s driveway) Even though a lot of people think that Brian & I hate each other because of our comments on the soccercity board, we are actually very good friends who simply hate each others clubs, and even though this was the first time we had ever met the two of us drank together all night (But you still support a pile of shit, Brian) 2 cases of woodchuck later or 12 bottles later it was suddenly 6.00am and we ordered 2 taxis to take us back to the hotel. BUT!!! the nights adventure still hadn’t ended, as some guy who had left the party earlier, had beat up some other guy up the road, and while we were waiting for the taxis, the cops arrived, guns drawn and lined us up on the pavement outside Abe’s house, they asked us loads of questions and asked what we were doing, after we explained that we were just over for a football tour and were from England, they asked for our names, Randle replied ALAN SHEARER, & Marsey replied PETER BEARDSLEY well I was trying not to laugh, thank god they didn’t know any Newcastle players. BUT! For the second city running we’d had guns pulled on us, poor little Keith didn’t know what to do, at least this time I wasn’t shitting myself with fear, I couldn’t do anything but laugh due to all the beer. The taxis finally arrived and the cops let us go on our way. I’m not aware of how much longer they were at Abe’s house trying to gather information.


Game day arrives, and remarkably I felt really fresh the next morning probably because the adrenalin and the feel good factor was still running through my veins, and we were all looking forward to the Bitter End & The Bullpen before the game (The Bullpen is still my favourite by a mile, it holds so many happy memories) Once again we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the T/A and the atmosphere at the game was excellent, I can only describe it as if someone has taken football from Europe and dropped it in Portland. You are finally going to get what you deserve next season with MLS football and your fans will be a credit to the league, once again after the game we all went back to the Bullpen for another fantastic night of banter, singing & drinking. Sadly the following day we had to leave Portland and head back across the pond, but the friendships that were born over those few days will last a lifetime.
Sunderland, England, Stadium of Light,
The pitch at the Stadium of Light from my 2006 visit very up close.

A story for a later date:-

As most of you will be aware, since our visit to Portland in 2005, 31 members of the T/A came over to Seaham (my home town,) the following Easter, to watch Sunderland play away to Man Utd, and home to Scumcastle. I have returned to Portland with my wife Jackie, and our friend Big Paul. Kip & Jen came back over to England the year after that, and we arranged an English wedding reception for them. Then last year Allie returned to England again to watch the Sunderland v Everton game. These are friendships that will never end, regardless of the distance between us.









Do I have any regrets about our visit to Portland, actually yes I had 1 regret, I never met the immortal “TIMBER JIM” but I promised myself that would be rectified one day, and you all know the outcome of that, because we met when Jackie and I returned, and all I can say is that he and his family, are very special people.