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Timbers reserves make a case for playing time

Coaches use different approach based on each player's status
by: STEEL BROOKS 
Rodrigo Lopez, playing for the Portland Timbers reserve team, attempts to make a move with the ball in a match against San Jose.

Portland Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson lay on the ground in complete anguish after giving up a goal in the 75th minute against the Vancouver Whitecaps in a reserve match Sunday afternoon.

Then, there was the triumph radiating through the entire Timbers club when, in stoppage time, Portland scored an equalizer and a moment later, scored the match winner. The players jumped up and down. Reserve coach Amos Magee pumped his fist.

Even though Sunday's 3-2 win over the Whitecaps at Jeld-Wen Field drew an unprecedented announced crowd of 10,077, reserve matches are usually overlooked by fans. But for the players, the 90-minute games are as important as any MLS matches.

'We're always here to win,' midfielder Rodrigo Lopez says. 'We're always here to try to impress the coaches and try to get some minutes in for the guys who don't play. Most importantly, we're trying to win this league.'

Magee takes coaching the reserves in two steps. His priority before the match is to talk with Timbers head coach John Spencer and decide how to use players in a way that will benefit the first team. Once the whistle blows, Magee is intent on winning.

'We'll sit down as a staff, and John and I go over individual players,' Magee says. 'For some players, it's getting them match fitness because we're going to expect to call on them in the next week or two with the first team. With some, it's getting them back from injury. And for our young players, it's about getting them experience playing against like minded players on other teams. So each player has a different target and goal.

'Once the game starts, but for managing the clock and time (for players) -which I have to do -it comes down to trying to win. John gives me a lot of freedom in terms of trying to win games as long as the overall health of the club and the first team is first.'

The reserve matches are played with free substitutions. Other players who play in reserve league matches are those who have fallen out of the MLS club's starting lineup or those who have been suspended for a match because of a red card or accumulated yellow cards.

Toe-to-toe

Lopez, who played for the Timbers' United Soccer Leagues Division-2 club last season, says the reserve league matches are filled with more talent than he saw from clubs last season.

'You've got 20 guys, 30 guys on a roster that are MLS material,' Lopez says. 'If they're not playing with the first team and they come out here, you're going to get some quality guys. If not, they would be somewhere else. They would be playing USL, they would be playing NASL. So this is a much more competitive league.'

Lopez looks at the reserve matches as a way to prove that he is worthy of MLS minutes in the future.

'We come out here and try to win ourselves a spot,' he says. 'It just pressures the coaches into playing some of the new guys. Some of the guys who haven't been playing much, this is our time to shine.'

Striker Bright Dike is working his way into MLS matches after missing the majority of the season because of a ruptured Achilles' tendon he suffered in the preseason. The reserve matches are critical for him to improve his skills and fitness.

'It's there for me to get my touches, get my fitness, work hard and get that strength and that game experience back so that when I get my minutes with the first team it looks fresh and I'm contributing,' Dike says.

With attendance usually low, the reserve players have to learn how to compete from self-motivation, rather than relying on a fan base to lift them up.

'I've played in front of three people for most of my life,' Gleeson says. 'So that desire to pick myself up and keep motivating myself has always been there. You can't let that go even if you're playing in front of 20,000 people, or you find yourself relying on it too much. I'm always able to pick myself up and try to concentrate.'

Several players on the Timbers' reserve side have been making a case for themselves to get first-team playing time this season, or in the future.

'(Midfielder) Freddy Braun has played very well in exhibition games,' Magee says. 'Roro (Lopez) has been hit and miss in exhibition games. (Striker) Brian Umony is starting to get first-team minutes based on the work he's put in with the reserves. (Defender) Chris Taylor is a young guy who we think the world of. Also we have Jake Gleeson, who has played first-team minutes.

'We have a good core of young players, and what I see as my job is to try to get them ready so they can play first-team minutes, hopefully with us and, if not, maybe elsewhere.'

After the win over the Whitecaps, the Timbers reserves have a record of 4-2-1 (13 points), with three matches left to play. When the regular season ends on Oct. 3, there will be reserve league playoffs and a championship match.

Making the playoffs and winning the league championship means as much to the Timbers reserve side as doing the same thing at the MLS level means to the first team.

'(A reserve league championship) is what the club wants, and that's what we desire,' Gleeson says. 'It would mean a lot to the club. It would mean a lot to the reserve players. We've put in a lot of effort and we've played well this season, so it would mean just as much to us as winning the MLS championship.

'For the people who aren't playing, that's our MLS championship. You have to put it toe to toe, because that's what keeps you sharp and that's what keeps you wanting to play.'