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Timbers' young keeper still waiting for his opportunity

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: NICK FOCHTMAN - Backup goalkeeper Jake Gleeson watches from the sideline as the Portland Timbers play the New York Red Bulls in their season opener.Words that have been used to describe Portland Timbers backup goalkeeper Jake Gleeson: potential, upside, future.

“I like his potential,” Timbers coach Caleb Porter says. “He’s got a great frame. He’s got great physical tools. He seems to be very mature beyond his years, and he has a big upside.”

Words that have not been used to describe Gleeson: experience, opportunity.

“It just comes down to experience,” Porter says. “The goalkeeper position is complex in that regard. You can be ready physically and even tactically, but it takes time to get ready mentally.”

Therein lies the problem for the 22-year-old from New Zealand. Gleeson has been with Portland since 2010, when he came from Team Wellington to play for the Timbers’ U-23 side. In the last two-plus years, though, he has only appeared in four MLS matches, all in 2011.

“That’s the curse of the young goalkeeper,” Gleeson says. “Especially in this league, where there are a lot of other good goalkeepers. It’s tough.”

Gleeson knows about tough, too, coming from the rugby nation of New Zealand. Rugby never interested him, however. He was a cricket player.

“Cricket was the sport that I was best at growing up,” Gleeson says. “I was playing against kids above my age, and I was quite a decent cricket player.”

One day, in his early teens, Gleeson was hanging around a friend’s soccer tryout. The side needed a goalkeeper for a drill and asked Gleeson to stand in.

“I was sitting on the sideline picking daisies or something,” he recalls. “I just jumped in between the goal to see what I could do just for a bit of a laugh.”

Later, two weeks before the beginning of the soccer season, the team’s regular goalkeeper dislocated his knee, and Gleeson was asked to play.

“I said, ‘Sure, why not? I’ll give it a go and see what happens,’ ” he says. “I really enjoyed it. My friends were playing on the team and it was a good time, so I just continued from there.”

Soon, Gleeson decided that he was more interested in soccer than cricket.

“When I started playing soccer a bit more, my heart kind of changed over,” he says.

By 2010, though, Gleeson was questioning whether he would continue playing soccer.

“Nothing was really working out for me,” he says. “I was about to give (it) up. I called my coach (in New Zealand) and told him that I was going to play midfield for a pub team and just concentrate on University.”

That was when Timbers technical director Gavin Wilkinson, a fellow Kiwi, called Gleeson and asked him to play for the Premier Development League club.

Gleeson had been to Portland for a U-17 tournament and was excited by Wilkinson’s invite.

“I jumped at the chance,” he says.

During the 2010 PDL season, the 6-3, 200-pound Gleeson was a star. He posted a 14-0-0 record with eight shutouts in helping the U-23s become the first undefeated champion in PDL history.

The next year, Gleeson was brought up to the MLS club.

He got playing time right away, as goalies Troy Perkins and Adin Brown went down with injuries early in the season. Gleeson started three matches. In posting a 2-0-1 record, he made 12 saves and allowed six goals. But, since Portland’s match against FC Dallas on April 17, 2011, Gleeson has not appeared on the pitch.

“Last year was rough for me,” he says. “I learned how to prepare my body and I learned how to handle the low points. It was a huge year in my development.”

Gleeson says he is much improved this season. However, he is playing behind Donovan Ricketts as the Timbers (0-1-2) prepare for their next outing, a March 30 game at Colorado. Still, the future looks bright for Gleeson, given that Ricketts is 35.

“I’m anxious; I want to get out there really badly,” Gleeson says. “I work hard. That’s what I work every day to do.

“It’s about keeping your head down and doing the right things. It’s about being patient. That’s the most important thing. It’s a crazy game. It can change in two weeks. My time will come. And when that time comes, I’ll take it with both hands. I’ll make the position mine.”

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