Timbers get ready for battle

Two-game weekend includes showdown with loaded Seattle
by: L.E. BASKOW, Fans said goodbye to longtime mascot Timber Jim Serrill during a season-opening win over Puerto Rico last week.

Goodbye, beloved mascot. Hello, hated rival.

After winning the farewell game of Timber Jim, the Portland Timbers face their first multigame weekend and first of three clashes with defending league champion Seattle.

To see a slide show of Timber Jim's last game, click on the blue icon in the upper right hand corner of the picture.

'If the players aren't up for that game, they ought to retire and join me on the coaching staff,' General Manager and coach Gavin Wilkinson says. 'Except that the coaching staff is already full, so they'd be out of luck.'

The Timbers play Minnesota on Thursday and Seattle on Saturday, both at 7 p.m. at PGE Park.

Seattle and Portland generally are considered the strongest squads in the United Soccer Leagues First Division this season. The Sounders return all 11 starters and 16 players from their 2007 title squad. But Seattle needed a stoppage-time goal, off a free kick by former Timber Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar, to earn a 1-1 tie in its season opener Saturday at Charleston.

Portland went 70 minutes before scoring. Chris Brown's 22-yard drive lifted the Timbers to a 1-0 opening win over visiting Puerto Rico last Thursday. Wilkinson gave his club mostly good reviews for the way it sent longtime mascot Jim Serrill into retirement on a happy note.

Brown showed that he 'has the ability to score some spectacular goals - he could have had a hat trick,' Wilkinson says.

The other new forward, Takayuki Suzuki, doesn't have great speed 'but he's quick enough,' Wilkinson says, 'and every now and then, he looks special.'

The midfield, still a work in progress, held up OK against a Puerto Rico team that played a man down for nearly 55 minutes. Tom Poltl got the assist from the midfield unit that included Andrew Gregor, Lawrence Olum and Shaun Higgins and Scottish sub Bryan Little. 'It was a decent opening night for them just because of their work rate,' Wilkinson says.

The returning back line of ace central defenders Cameron Knowles and Justin Thompson and outside fullbacks Scot Thompson and Leonard Griffin would make even the most jittery coach in the league relax.

Wilkinson says it's also important that the roster includes backup defenders Tim Karalexis and Scott Bolkan. 'They're phenomenal players who probably would be starting on any other First Division team,' Wilkinson says.

One area the Timbers still are developing is offense from the wings. Wilkinson is eager to use swift right-side midfielder Arsene Oka of Ivory Coast; Oka was expected to join the team today for training. 'He's very attack-minded,' Wilkinson says.

And by May 10, the coach says, the locker room will be complete with the addition of 22-year-old Benjamin Totori. The 5-8 Solomon Islands striker figures to be Portland's fastest player up front.

'He's just as quick as Bryan Jordan was for us last year,' Wilkinson says. 'He's explosive. He has so much potential, it's incredible. He might not have Bryan's work rate, but he's a better finisher.'

Totori has been starring in the New Zealand Football championship, which Wilkinson says is 'very similar' to the USL Second Division.

'But he's played top teams from around the world and done well - he has the mentality you need,' Wilkinson says. 'I'm surprised bigger clubs (than us) weren't after him.'

At that point -barring player injuries -one of Wilkinson's main tasks before each game will be to determine which of his foreigners won't suit up. League rules allow a team to carry seven foreigners (the Timbers will have Totori, Oka, Suzuki, Olum, Little, Knowles and Tom Taylor) -but a team may select no more than five to be eligible for a match.

Portland Timbers

Next: Minnesota opens its season at 7 p.m. Thursday at PGE Park, while defending champion Seattle (0-0-1) invades town at 7 p.m. Saturday.

• If Portland's Neil Dombrowski and Minnesota's Tighe Dombrowski get on the field at the same time Thursday, it would be the first time ever for the brothers. Tighe, 26, says he wouldn't take it easy on Neil, 24, either.

'You don't look across when you're going for a tackle and notice it's your brother,' Tighe says. 'And if you let up, that's when an awkward collision or bad injuries happen. Besides, there's probably been nastier tackles between us in training in college (both played for Wisconsin-Milwaukee) than we'd ever get away with in a game.'

The Dombrowskis grew up playing soccer in a Milwaukee suburb, and Tighe is back with Minnesota after a three-year absence and a stint in Sweden. Brother Chad, 27, plays for Carolina, and brother Zeke, 21, might sign with the RailHawks in May, after he graduates from Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Older brother Scott, 29, also played college soccer there and in the pro ranks. Siblings Quinn (eighth grade), Cade (fourth grade) and Keally (third grade, and the only sister) round out the eight children for firefighter dad Mark and busy mom Judy.

- Steve Brandon