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Timbers come on strong in season start

Team shows off new vigor and versatility in edging L.A. Galaxy

Portland Timbers coach Bobby Howe had a message for his team after this week's season-opening 2-1 win over the L.A. Galaxy of Major League Soccer:

'You've created a standard below which you can't fall.'

The game showed that the Timbers can be Ñ should be Ñ stronger than they were a year ago. 'We showed we can do more things. The win was a terrific achievement,' Howe says.

The Timbers will play five more 'friendly' matches before their May 4 A-League opener at home against the Seattle Sounders. First is a game on Wednesday against the University of Portland. The preseason concludes on the road against Vancouver on April 27 and Seattle on April 28.

The only player still to arrive, veteran Sean McAuley, should be here in two weeks and play in one of the final two preseason games. McAuley, 29, is leaving Rochdale of the English Third Division. He wants to play here for at least a year and get into coaching. McAuley and defenders Gavin Wilkinson (New Zealand) and Keith Costigan (Ireland) will give Portland three foreign players, two under the A-League limit.

McAuley has been playing mostly as a defender for Rochdale. 'He wants to play midfield for us,' Howe says. 'We'll see.'

Portland's defense against L.A. consisted of Costigan and the ever-aggressive Brent Sancho on the outside and Scott Benedetti and Wilkinson in the middle. Benedetti, a big surprise last season, may still log a lot of minutes, even though the former University of Portland star, once a scorer, is 35 and the only Timber over 30.

'Benny got better last year as the season progressed,' Howe says. 'He's incredibly fit for his age. As you get older, you tend to move back. Only time will tell how this new position works out, but he can play just about anywhere for us.'

NOTES: The Timbers played especially well in the first half and took a 1-0 lead moments before halftime when Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar, one of 11 new players, weaved his way through the defense on a run from midfield. He showed that he can come at opposing teams from a lot of places and that defenses had better make him a marked man this season. 'I've basically asked Hugo to find the game,' Howe says. 'He started wide right against L.A. and as the game went on played inside more.' É The Timbers look more sprightly (average age: 26), organized and versatile. And when all else fails, there is Matt Napoleon back in goal. He turned away a Galaxy penalty kick and made 12 saves. É 'We can start a lot of different players this season,' Howe says, 'and we'll be working more now on changing the way we play within games, which isn't always an easy switch.' É The Timbers are keeping an eye on the rehabilitation of their top draft pick, defender Bryn Ritchie. The Medford native is recovering from knee surgery. Colorado of MLS also drafted him, but Howe says if the Rapids don't want him, the Timbers will find a place for him. Ritchie played at the University of Washington with two new Timbers, midfielders Benjamin Somoza and Jake Sagare, who are doing well with Portland. Somoza took corner kicks smoothly and had an assist in a solid first game. 'The college seniors in the Northwest were better this year than last,' Howe says. É The Galaxy didn't use all its top players, and stars Cobi Jones and Carlos Ruiz each played less than half the game. But L.A. had a much stronger squad than the one San Jose brought in last year's MLS exhibition at PGE Park, also won by Portland. L.A. came on very strong at the end, hitting the post three times, sending a shot off the crossbar and getting the penalty. Portland's substitutions might have helped the Galaxy get going and take command of the ball.

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