Timbers arrive ahead of three-year plan
3-0-0 Portland kicks off Wilkinson's second season with a bang
A couple of months ago, General Manager and coach Gavin Wilkinson laid out his plan for making the Portland Timbers even more of a force.
'It's a three-year cycle,' said Wilkinson, who took over the helm before last season. 'The first year, we wanted to make sure we were capable of defending and absorbing a lot of pressure; to do well in this league, you've got to concede very few goals.
'The second stage is to find more attacking players.
'Then, in the third year, you start to put the icing on the cake.'
Year 2 is only three games old, but if anything, Wilkinson's team seems ahead of cycle.
Last year, according to plan, the defense led the way. Portland allowed a league-low 18 goals in 28 regular-season games.
On Saturday, showing their more potent attack, the Timbers sent defending league champion Seattle home a 2-0 loser.
The Timbers climbed to 3-0-0. Seattle, which has been favored to repeat, fell to 0-1-1.
The Sounders may have thrown more punches Saturday, outshooting Portland 17-12 and piling up a 13-6 edge in corner kicks - but it was the Timbers who landed the telling blows.
If Portland made a statement with the victory, Wilkinson says this was it: 'It shows we've got a little bit of depth.'
The Timbers started three players -defender Tim Karalexis and midfielders Tom Poltl and Miguel Guante -who were on the bench for the kickoff two nights earlier against Minnesota. Karalexis and Poltl helped Portland absorb Seattle's high-caliber attack, and the slippery quick Guante made a matador-like move and a well-struck shot that gave the Timbers a 2-0 margin in the 76th minute.
'They're a strong team,' says Seattle midfield star Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar, a former Timber. 'They take pride in playing strong defense. Their style is not really to entertain, but they work hard and try to take advantage of their chances and then buckle down defensively.'
The Seattle game was new Portland goalie Ray Burse's coming-out party. It was the first game in which he was tested. He passed.
After seeing limited action for Major League Soccer's FC Dallas, Burse is excited to be on the field for every game as a loan player with Portland.
'I love it,' he says. 'That's the reason I play soccer. … In Dallas, things weren't going my way. I'm here to get the games in, keep playing well and get back to the form I was in last season.'
As for Seattle's thrusts: 'I didn't really feel the pressure,' Burse says. 'I felt like I was on top of my game, so the pressure was actually on their forwards to beat me.'
Meanwhile, the Timbers are scoring and threatening more often, just as Wilkinson hoped they would in their second year.
In the first two games, Portland rode the 'Brownie' points of forward Chris Brown.
'My goal is a goal a game,' he said after scoring against both Puerto Rico and Minnesota. 'That's a tough pace to keep up, but as long as we win, that's all that matters.'
Brown went scoreless against Seattle, but Saturday was front-line mate Takayuki Suzuki's time to shine. Portland kept feeding him, mostly with long balls, and the former World Cup player from Japan came through with a goal and an assist.
'Taka creates a lot of havoc,' Brown says. 'He draws a lot of guys toward him. He's a handful.'
Wilkinson admires more than the skill of his new 31-year-old forwards.
'They're two of the oldest players on the team -and two of the hardest-working players,' he says.
Next: Portland is 3-0-0 going into the finale of a four-game homestand at 7 p.m. May 8 against Rochester. The Rhinos went 6-0 in preseason matches but don't open until Friday at Charleston. Portland will be their third road game in seven days; Rochester plays May 4 at Minnesota. And the Rhinos must play May 10 at Vancouver and May 14 at Seattle, so fatigue figures to be a concern.
• Goalie Ray Burse, on loan from FC Dallas, expects to fly to San Jose this week for Saturday's MLS match against the Earthquakes. But he believes that will be his final duty of the season with Dallas, barring injuries to Dallas' other keepers.
• Coach Gavin Wilkinson, who thought Ivory Coast midfielder Arsene Oka was going to arrive early last week, said after the Seattle game that Oka 'should be here' by today. 'He just had a problem with his flights,' Wilkinson says.
• Timber Joey? The first to try out in the Timber Jim Replacement Derby was 28-year-old Joey Webber, a Philomath native. He was the chainsaw-toting guest mascot for both games last week. 'I'm trying to respect and carry on the traditions that Timber Jim left,' he says. Webber came to 10 to 12 games as a fan, including the 2008 season opener, which was Timber Jim's swan song. 'When I saw that he was retiring, I got right on the phone' and applied for the job. Webber says he was told that the fans will get to vote on whom they want and 'what the new (mascot) name is going to be.'
• Tim Karalexis' mobility helped him earn the nod in central defense Saturday against Seattle. He went the entire game in his Timber debut, with regular starter Justin Thompson sitting out. 'It was a big game to have as your first one, but I'm not a rookie,' says Karalexis, 27, who played nearly every minute of 28 matches with Charleston last year.
Thompson, a late arrival to camp after looking into a business opportunity, still is working into 100 percent match fitness. He says he lost 15 pounds in approximately three weeks before the Puerto Rico game. 'I've been working hard,' he says. 'I don't want to let our fans down. We owe a lot to them and to the city of Portland.'
Wilkinson said after the Seattle match that 'if this had been a one-off game, I probably would have started Justin.'
- Steve Brandon