Jake Gleeson was considering focusing on his education when Portland Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson invited the fellow New Zealander to play for the Timbers under-23 team.
One year later, Gleeson’s future is definitely in soccer.
Just 20 years old, Gleeson played in goal in four Major League Soccer games and started three for the Portland Timbers at the start of this season. More recently, he earned his first cap with the New Zealand national team by playing in a friendly against Australia.
MLS is a leap from the Premier Development League, where last summer Gleeson helped lead the Timbers to a perfect 20-0 record and a national championship.
“U23s was great,” Gleeson said. “The level (of play) was good. Just getting used to the American style was the big thing for me. Getting used to how athletic they were, how sharp they were and the speed, that was the biggest thing that got me ready for (MLS).”
The 2011 version of the Timbers PDL team returns to action on Saturday, with a 7 p.m. match against the Tacoma Tide at Vancouver’s Kiggins Bowl.
IF YOU GO
■ What: Timbers U23s vs. Tacoma Tide.
■ When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
■ Where: Kiggins Bowl in Vancouver.
■ Cost: Tickets $8 at the gate.
A portion of the price goes to Vancouver United youth soccer club.
Camas High graduates Brent Richards and Nick Palodichuk play for the Timbers U23s. Another Camas grad, Quinton Beasley, is playing this summer with the Tide. Richards and Beasley play for the University of Washington, and Palodichuk is entering his freshman season at Duke University.
“It’s the best college players against the best college players,” Wilkinson said of the PDL.
Gleeson and defender Freddie Braun made the most of their under-23 opportunity last summer, and followed with a strong training camp to earn a paying job with the MLS Timbers.
Jim Rilatt, coach for the Timbers U23s, said Gleeson’s contribution last season went beyond his eight regular-season shutouts. He also became a vocal leader for the club.
“He could get on teammates without them hanging their heads,” Rilatt said, noting that Gleeson earned the respect of teammates by happily performing the chores assigned to rookies.
“I did expect him to handle this year maturely,” Rilatt said. “It’s really just been fun to watch him.”
Since No. 1 goalkeeper Troy Perkins returned to health, Gleeson has returned to the third spot on the Timbers depth chart at goalkeeper.
“It’s hard sitting on the bench, but Troy’s doing a fantastic job so it’s good to watch him and learn as much as I can,” Gleeson said.
He hopes to play in some Reserve League and exhibition matches. In the meantime, he is challenging himself every time he steps onto the practice field.
“I think you have to approach (training) like it is a game,” Gleeson said. “You throw yourself out there. If I go into training and I have good intensity, I know I’m going to keep improving. That’s the main thing.”
Investing in an under-23 side is something not every MLS team does. Wilkinson said having a U23 squad gives the Timbers a chance to evaluate young players in a professional environment.
“We do want to give back to the community, and this is an avenue for young players to develop within a professional environment,” Wilkinson said.
• The MLS Timbers continue preparing for Sunday’s 7 p.m. home match against the New York Red Bulls. Coach John Spencer said the solution for his team’s recent scoring drought — two consecutive shutout losses — is to keep shooting.
“I think you’ve got to blast your way out of trouble,” Spencer said. “I think you’ve got to hit the ball every time it comes. Don’t think. Sometimes when you overthink it, then you over play it, then you take too many touches on the ball.”
• Fans can bowl with some Portland Timbers players between 5:30 and 7 p.m. today at Grand Central Bowl, 808 S.E. Morrison St. in Portland. The event is a fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters Northwest.
• The Timbers U23s (4-4-1) are third in the PDL Northwest Division. They also play a match on July 8 at Doc Harris Stadium in Camas.