Howe vows to be no-nonsense coach

Timbers' boss says malcontents won't be around long this year

The Portland Timbers were a mixed bag last year. Their play sagged during an unusually long road stretch in midseason. Players complained at times about their roles in coach Bobby Howe's system. They made a late run to the 10th playoff seed, then reached the A-League quarterfinals before losing to Hershey.

Howe says things will be different this year.

'I'm going to be a little tougher with the players,' he says. 'If there are any signs of players rocking the boat, they'll be gone. This year, I'll make my life a lot easier ÑÊI'll get rid of them.

'There are a lot of players out there.'

And the Timbers, despite cutting their player payroll by close to 25 percent, have got their share of good ones.

'We've upgraded,' Howe says. 'We had some belt-tightening, but that doesn't mean we'll be less effective or entertaining. We've got a very good, very strong squad.'

Portland has revamped a front line that was highly touted but not always productive, for whatever reasons. Out are Mark Baena, Greg Howes, Darren Sawatzky and Darrin Lewis. In are Chugger Adair, Fadi Afash, McKinley Tennyson and Reese Bettinger.

Local fullback Joey Leonetti, coming off a ruptured Achilles' tendon, is getting a look, too.

Another newcomer, offensive-minded Hugo Alcaraz, is a good bet to start on the right side in midfield. Sean McCauley and Erik Ozimek have been signed to play defense, perhaps replacing the steady duo of Jeff Clarke and Matt Chulis, as well as Jesus Ochoa, though McCauley won't arrive from the English 3rd Division till mid-April.

NOTES: Portland General Manager Jim Taylor puts it: 'We were in the top five to 10 in the league in pay last season, and I don't know if that will change all that much. É I fully expect us to have a better team.' É Returning players include goalkeeper Matt Napoleon, the players' unanimous team MVP of 2001. 'We're looking for Matt to extend his range in the penalty area in dealing with crosses,' Howe says. 'I think he can take his game to another level.' É Also back: Keith Costigan, Gavin Wilkinson and Scott Benedetti on the back line, and Brian Winters and Vadim Tolstolutsky in midfield. Athletic young defender Brent Sancho will move from the middle to the right side and get the green light to attack. Howe wants to sign another central defender, especially with top draft pick Bryn Ritchie still mending from knee surgery and hoping to stick with Colorado of Major League Soccer.

The Timbers were looking for more size Ñ up front and in back Ñ and speed. Tennyson, 6-2, and Adair, 6-5, could give them the target players they desired. Afash also is a scorer, although he earned his MVP honors in the lower, D3 level last year. 'We want to execute set plays better this year, too,' Howe says. 'I think we scored only five goals indirectly or directly from corner kicks. Meanwhile, teams put us under lots and lots of pressure on corners and throw-ins.' É Training camp starts Monday. The first game is an April 9 exhibition at PGE Park against the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. League play begins May 4 at home against Seattle.

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