Timbers roster reaches new dimensions

City's soccer franchise adds height, mobility, flexibility and youth

It isn't etched in stone, but in more ways than on paper, the Portland Timbers look improved.

'On paper, we probably had the best team in the league last year ÑÊeasily,' defender Brent Sancho says. 'We underachieved.'

The Timbers had to finish strong just to make the A-League playoffs, then were bounced out in the quarterfinals.

They opened camp Monday with more height, mobility and flexibility.

'We have a better group, a better squad,' defender Keith Costigan says. 'The franchise and the coaches have been in the league for a year now, and they were able to see what we needed. We were a little one-dimensional last year. We have more options now.'

The Timbers also are a bit younger going into Tuesday's 7 p.m. exhibition game against the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. The PGE Park match will feature the Galaxy's developmental players, including a Timber reserve of last season, 20-year-old midfielder Jesus Ochoa.

It's the first week of training , 'and everybody pretty much understands their role. That's a big change from last year,' Sancho says. 'Three or four games into the season, we were still feeling each other out. We just never really jelled.'

Returning players are goalkeeper Matt Napoleon, one of the league's best; defenders Sancho, Gavin Wilkinson, 35-year-old Scott Benedetti and Costigan; and midfielders Brian Winters and Vadim Tolstolutsky.

Key newcomers include left fullback Sean McAuley, 29, who is expected to arrive from English Third Division Rochdale shortly before the start of the A-League season; midfielders Hugo Alcaraz and Erik Ozimek; and forwards McKinley Tennyson Jr., Chugger Adair, Fadi Afash and Rees Bettinger.

'We have players who can cover a lot of ground,' coach Bobby Howe says, 'players who are fit already and will be even fitter.'

Adair tormented the Timbers last season, scoring four goals against them as a member of the San Diego Flash. Tennyson, a former UCLA star, played some in Sweden last season, then tried out for the Galaxy. Afash, from Syria, steps up from the D3 level. Bettinger comes from rival Seattle.

Howe, on the 6-foot-2 Tennyson, whose nickname is Kei: 'Strong and mobile. Powerful shooting skills.'

On the 6-5 Adair: 'A very good target player who is effective in the air. He also has nice control with his feet for a tall man. He's going to be a threat.'

On Afash: 'A wily, intelligent player who feeds off other players. A very natural goal scorer. He's brave in the box. He scores the impressive goals but also finds a way to get his foot on the ball. He's a bit unorthodox, a bit of an individualist, which can be good in the final third of the field.'

On Bettinger: 'A terrific, tireless worker. He always causes opposing defenses problems with his work rate and hustle.'

NOTES: Tennyson scored three goals Wednesday as the Timbers played their first 'friendly' game, beating Oregon State 5-0 at PGE Park. Bettinger and Afash also scored. 'Our forwards will be a handful for any defender,' Costigan says. É Alcaraz also can be effective on the attack. He scored six goals in 18 games last season as a rookie with San Diego.

Sancho says he came close to finalizing deals with pro teams in Norway and Germany and hopes to be in Europe next season. 'I honestly hope this is my last year playing in the U.S.,' says the Trinidad national team member. 'I'm going to work really hard and have a solid season here. For me, the main thing is to show leadership, do what I do best and keep it simple.'

Returning to Portland was a nice alternative to launching a European career. 'The fans here showed me a lot of love,' he says.

Sancho probably will move to the right side on defense and work his way up the field when chances arise. Vying for a central defender position role is Nick Terlecky, who has started for A-League Pittsburgh.

Michael O'Neill, the Timbers' mainstay in midfielder a year ago, won't return from Europe this season. 'The budget is only so big,' Howe says. 'He gave us a lot of qualities with his passing, experience and leadership, but we had to defend around him. He didn't defend and wasn't able to get up and down the field between the penalty areas for 90 minutes, so we had to adjust our team around him. This year, all our midfielders will have those abilities.'

The touring Galaxy beat another A-League team, El Paso, 2-0 Tuesday before a crowd of 7,022. 'If any team is going to expose our weaknesses, they will be the team,' Howe says. É The Timbers will open the regular season at home May 4 against Seattle. Portland will play the Sounders once in the preseason, April 28 in Seattle. É Goalkeepers Eric Larson, Chris Smith and Adam Pearce are in camp, hoping to earn the backup job.

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