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Timbers aim to hit ground running

• Well-stocked roster of returnees, new talent should solidify season

The Portland Timbers will start training camp Thursday with one major goal Ña fast start to the season.

The Timbers got off to an 0-5 two years ago, then missed the -A-League playoffs last season after a 2-6 start.

Portland finished 15-11-2 in 2003.

'At the end of the season, we were one of the best teams in the A League,' coach Bobby Howe says. 'At the end, we had Vancouver's number and Seattle's number. If we had scored more points in May, we'd have made the playoffs very comfortably.'

General Manager Jim Taylor says about 13 Timbers are under contract, and all but a handful of players are returning.

'There is no excuse for a slow start this year,' Taylor says.

Signed players include:

nForwards McKinley Tennyson (29 goals in the last two seasons), Byron Alvarez (12 goals, six of them game-winners, in 2003), Dan Antoniuk and draft pick Alan Gordon from Oregon State.

nMidfielders Brian Winters, Scott Benedetti, former Seattle Sounder Alex Bengard and Adam Wilson, who was out almost all of last season with a sore Achilles tendon.

nDefenders Gavin Wilkinson, Aaron Heinzen, Lee Morrison and Ryan Youngblood.

nGoalkeeper Josh Saunders.

Tennyson, 6-2, won't be in camp till Monday because he is receiving treatment in Los Angeles after offseason hip surgery.

'McKinley's going to be a force for us this year,' Howe says. 'He's really keen to do well, and I think he'll be fitter.'

The 6-4 Saunders was a member of San Jose's Major League Soccer championship team last season. He also was 10-4-2 with Portland, with 0.90 goals against.

'I'm getting a ring in mid-April. Now I want to win my own championship with an A-League team, and we're very capable of doing that,' he says.

The Timbers are hoping for two other solid midfielders to come back ÑHugo Alcaraz-Cuellar and Jake Sagare.

'We need two wide midfield players and a defender,' Howe says.

Sagare has until Wednesday to decide if he will return for a second season with the Timbers or stay with Halifax Town in England. Sagare had two game-winning goals and was a key for Portland down the stretch last season.

'If he comes back, he'll be here by the middle of April at the latest,' Taylor says.

Alcaraz-Cuellar led Portland with nine assists last year.

'He wants to come back,' Taylor says. 'He's just sifting through his options, which include leaving soccer and going into the working world. If he and Jake return, we'll basically have our whole team back.'

Notes

Fadi Afash, the crafty veteran forward, also is expected in camp. He is coming off knee injuries. 'We'll have to see how he's doing,' Taylor says. Howe says the Timbers may have plenty of forwards but adds, 'If you look at Fadi's legs, he's a 90-year-old, but he's a tremendous goal scorer.' É The Timbers have signed Bayard Elfin of Ashland (Ohio) University as their backup goalkeeper. É Alvarez, a Mexico City native of Guatemalan descent, played without a visa and couldn't travel with the team to Canada, but he has his green card now.

Winters, Benedetti and Wilkinson are the only three original A-League Timbers back for their fourth seasons. Benedetti, 37, was believed to be the oldest player in the A-League last season. É Howe says defender Leonard Griffin, a second-round draft pick from UCLA, has a chance to stick with the MLS Chicago Fire. É Defender Bryn Ritchie won't play this season because of chronic left-knee problems. His career could be over, but Taylor says Ritchie hasn't ruled out a comeback attempt in 2005.

The Timbers open May 1 at home against Seattle. Their schedule is much more favorable this season since they won't be away from PGE Park for more than two weeks or three games at a time. É Four of the seven teams in the Western Conference ÑPortland, Seattle, Vancouver, Calgary, expansion Edmonton, Milwaukee and Minnesota Ñ will make the eight-team playoffs. The Timbers will play each West foe four times, with nonconference games at home against Rochester and Puerto Rico and on the road versus Charleston and Atlanta. É Ex-Timber Darren Sawatzky has re-signed with Seattle. É The Timbers remain part of the PGE Park mess that left former operator Portland Family Entertainment $2 million in debt to the city. 'We think we will have a season, but you never know,' says Howe, who also is director of coaching for Lake Oswego Soccer Club.

Taylor says Charleston and Rochester probably have the highest budgets in the league. Vancouver, which recently signed former University of Portland star Andrew Gregor, also ranks high, and the Timbers remain competitive in spending, Taylor says. 'Our budget has been fairly consistent,' Taylor says. É Mark Schuster, president of PFE, remains president of the Timbers, who receive 'most of' their operating money from TIAA-CREF, a New York-based teachers credit union. Howe says he didn't have money to do much scouting around the country this year. 'We haven't had the resources to get out and look at players or combines,' he says. É Taylor says Timber games will be broadcast again this year on KKPZ (1330 AM) and that home games will be carried in Spanish on KRMZ (1330 AM).

Contact Steve Brandon at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .