BEAVERTON, Ore. — The messages at Portland Timbers practice on Tuesday included these:
• Despite a tie and two losses in three road games to open the Major League Soccer season, the team is trending in a positive direction.
• Three changes to the starting lineup last week weren’t punishment for poor performances from those replaced, but were a chance for several young players to carry solid training work into meaningful action. Kalif Alhassan, James Marcelin and David Horst each responded well.
• Communication has not caused the breakdowns that led to opponents’ goals — despite lineup shuffling and the relative newness of players’ on-field roles.
• Coach John Spencer is eager to see what a full-strength Donovan Nagbe can inject into the Timbers’ attack.
With their April 14 MLS home opener next on the schedule, the Timbers have some reason to be upbeat. Top goalkeeper Troy Perkins has returned to training. Midfielder Sal Zizzo’s shoulder is on the mend. Nagbe has more than a week to improve his fitness before the next match.
In reviewing the first three weeks of the season, Spencer said his team has shown fight since a poor outing in the opener at Colorado. The coach was pleased with the way his club executed Saturday’s plan, which was to keep the pressure on New England so that the Revolution’s physical midfield and speedy fullbacks had to spend more time defending than attacking.
Though Saturday’s contest ended in a 1-1 draw, the Timbers displayed more confidence and conviction both pursuing and possessing the ball.
“It’s (players) getting more aggressive, and I think realizing they’re good enough to play at this level and realizing you have to compete from the first whistle to the last whistle,” Spencer said, explaining the improvement between the first game and the third. “I think we’ve been winning a lot of 50-50 balls in there.”
Rookie midfielders Alhassan and Marcelin and young central defender Horst entered the starting 11 for last Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup qualifier against Chivas USA, and each maintained his spot in the lineup Saturday.
Playing in front of the back four as a stopper in midfield, Marcelin won enough contested balls to disrupt opposing attacks and to allow Jack Jewsbury more freedom to press the attack. Marcelin said after Tuesday’s training session that he approached Saturday’s first MLS start with the attitude of a workman.
“I think I did what the coach told me to do and worked hard,” he said. “You have to work hard and win all the balls in midfield.”
Spencer said that despite lineup shifts, communication breakdowns have not happened — and should not happen.
“They practice everyday. They know what the requirements are and they know the way we want to play,” Spencer said. “When you get the opportunity to play then you’ve got to play well to stay in the team. I don’t have a problem with them being young. If they’re good enough, they’re old enough.”
Darlington Nagbe, the 20-year-old top draft pick who made his Timbers debut in the 66th minute at New England, is a much-anticipated example. Sidelined for a month recovering from sports hernia surgery, Nagbe didn’t make an impact on the match, but his return was an encouraging sign for Spencer.
“He brings that explosive speed and also that great creativity that we may just be lacking a bit,” Spencer said. “His final ball is tremendous, so it’s important that we get him back (at full strength) ASAP.”
NOTES: Spencer said he will use Saturday’s scrimmage in Corvallis against Oregon State to get game action for players who have seen little or none in the past two weeks. ... Alhassan lost the team’s monthly mustache penalty-kick shootout at Tuesday’s practice. Horst was the March loser, and his “Horstache” has become popular with fans.