by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: NICK FOCHTMAN - Portland's Darlington Nagbe, battling a New York player for a header in the Timbers's MLS opener, likes playing for Caleb Porter, his college coach at Akron. But Nagbe has a nagging left ankle injury.Back in the early 1990s, Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter and New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter were both stars around Kalamazoo, Mich.

“I remember in the paper there would always be articles about him,” Porter says. “He was the top baseball guy, I was one of the top soccer guys, so we were always in the paper together. I was well aware of him in high school.”

Jeter, who was a year older than Porter, was from central Kalamazoo while Porter grew up in Richland, a small town just outside of Kalamazoo. The two were not necessarily friends, but they did run into each other occasionally.

“One of my best friends, a guy who I played club (soccer) with, went to high school with Derek and they knew each other very well,” Porter says. “There were times when we were in similar circles. I didn’t know Derek to the point where we were friends, but we crossed paths a few times.”

Porter was impressed with the kind of person Jeter was, calling the future Hall of Famer “a good guy, humble, personable, a genuine guy.”

In the two weeks since the Timbers have had off since playing the Seattle Sounders, Porter has seen improvements from his club.

“We get a notch, a level better each week,” Porter says. “There will be a ceiling at some point, but we’re certainly not there. Our ceiling is a bit higher than most teams because we have so many new guys, so our potential to grow in training week after week is greater than other teams. I’m seeing that in training. The team we are, going into this game (vs. Colorado on Saturday), is a notch higher than we were last week.”

When playing at Colorado, the altitude is the elephant in the room for every visiting team. But, Porter says the Timbers have not prepared any differently for the road match against the Rapids.

“It’s something that, for me, isn’t anything that we need to concern ourselves with and overhype,” Porter says of the altitude. “It’s something that we’re aware of, but we haven’t undertrained for any of the other games. We want to be fit for every game. We’ve prepared them just like we prepare them for every game, it’s no different. With each opponent, there’s some different things that we have to be aware of and we fold those into training. We’ve had a good two weeks to prepare for Colorado so that’s given us an advantage.”

The other enormous advantage the Timbers have is that the Rapids are snake-bitten with injuries. Goalkeeper Matt Pickens is out with a broken arm, striker Edson Buddle has missed matches with fluid buildup in his right knee, captain Pablo Mastroeni has left two of the past three matches with a pulled left quad and midfielders Martin Rivero and Jaime Castrillon are out with long-term injuries suffered before the season.

Porter is aware of the Rapids’ awful luck, but says it does not provide the Timbers with an advantage.

“It’s something you’re aware of,” Porter says. “We know that there are some players who are out. But, it doesn’t really affect what we do, or make it any easier to win the game. It just means that now we’re preparing for different players.”

During the past two weeks, the Timbers have had to train without four players who were called up for national team duty: defender Mamadou “Futty” Danso (Gambia), striker Ryan Johnson (Jamaica), midfielder Will Johnson (Canada) and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts (Jamaica). Porter looks at training without those four players as a good thing, though.

“We’ve used it as a positive,” Porter says. “It’s a reality. We’re not the only team dealing with it. Almost every team is dealing with it. Teams have lost guys for games. We’re fortunate to not to have to lose guys for a game. We’ve also had the opportunity to put the group together for two weeks without some key players so it helped build our depth. It’s more of a positive than a negative.”

During the match against the Seattle Sounders on March 16, Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe rolled his left ankle, which forced him to miss several training sessions last week. Nagbe says his ankle is feeling better, though both he and Porter are reluctant to say that he will be available for the match against the Rapids.

“I trained today (Tuesday) and it felt good,” Nagbe says. “I was happy about that. But, I’m not sure (if I’ll be ready to play). I’m just going to go through training and take it day-by-day. But, today it felt pretty OK.”

Says Porter: “It still looks like he’s limping a little bit, but it was a positive that he was able to make it through training (Tuesday). We’ll see how he is Thursday.”

It is in the Timbers’ best interest for Nagbe to get back to the pitch as soon as possible. Since being reunited with Porter — his college coach at Akron — Nagbe’s game has taken a dramatic step forward.

“I’m pretty comfortable with him,” Nagbe says. “It’s just his system. I’m more familiar with the system.”

Timbers defender Mikael Silvestre spent the two weeks off trying to get himself and his family acclimated to Portland.

“I had to do a lot of stuff off the field to get my family settled and to find a place to live,” Silvestre says. “So, for me, those two weeks were beneficial.”

Having come to the Timbers so late in the preseason, the Frenchman is still adjusting to the club. But, he says that as time passes he is getting more comfortable with his teammates.

“There’s a lot of new guys (to play with),” Silvestre says. “The more time we spend together, the better it is. I feel more comfortable as the time goes by.”

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