Timbers seek new heights

Second year in MLS brings postseason expectations

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

Published:

 

Timbers 2012 Facts and figures

Schedule: 34 MLS games, 17 at Jeld-Wen Field. Additional exhibition games to be announced. (Click here for the 2012 schedule.)

Stadium: Jeld-Wen Field is at Southwest 18th and Morrison in downtown Portland. Capacity for this season has been raised above 20,000 by opening some upper sections that were closed in 2011. Gates open two hours before each game. Parking is limited near the stadium. Fans are encouraged to ride MAX light rail to games.

Tickets: Timbers MLS home games are almost sold out. Check Ticketmaster outlets or the Timbers box office at Jeld-Wen Field for availability.

TV: All 34 league games will be televised live on local or national outlets.

Radio: Most games live on 750 AM. Some will be moved to alternate stations. John Strong is the lead play-by-play announcer.

Online:www.portlandtimbers.com.

Looking for a reason to be optimistic about the Portland Timbers of 2012? Ask Rodney Wallace.

“We have good players who know their roles,” Wallace, a defender and midfielder, said.

Last season, the Timbers entered Major League Soccer with aspirations of crashing the playoff party. They didn’t quite get there, coming up a few points short.

It’s safe to say that aspirations have evolved into expectations as the Timbers enter Year Two in MLS, kicking off the season on Monday with a home match against Philadelphia.

“This year we need to get into the playoffs and we want to make a run at the championship,” defender Eric Brunner said. “This is a town that deserves trophies, and we’re going to go out every single day and work hard to achieve that goal.”

The front office did its share of offseason work to improve the roster.

The most noteworthy moves were at forward, where last season’s poster-boy Kenny Cooper was traded to New York, and Scottish striker Kris Boyd was given a seven-figure contract to score goals in Portland. Boyd started well, scoring a goal early in his preseason debut last week.

Team depth is another area of significant improvement. Colombian center back Hanyer Mosquera and midfielder Franck Songo’o, from Cameroon, are two new players who could become regular starters.

With the possible exception of right back, the roster appears to have at least two players at every position who could earn regular first-team time.

“It’s great for this team,” defender Mike Chabala said. “I think there’s a lot of depth on this team, and I think there are going to be a lot of positive moments from a lot of different guys this year.”

Several of the newcomers — including rookie and Camas High graduate Brent Richards — figure to be limited mostly to reserve spots as they transition into MLS.

The Timbers put an emphasis on youth and athletic ability. The improvement of young players — including Wallace, Darlington Nagbe, Kalif Alhassan, Eric Alexander and James Marcelin — is a significant part of the front-office’s plan.

Nagbe, who was a highly-touted rookie in 2011, said he was tentative on the attack last season. He figures to play both at forward and in midfield this season.

“Now I’ve got more of a handle on the routine, so I should be better this year,” Nagbe said.

Comfort level is also a factor for a pair of Colombians — midfielder Diego Chara and forward Jorge Perlaza. Each said through an interpreter that he is much more comfortable than last season, in part because their families have joined them.

One Colombian who will not contribute this season is Jose Adolfo Valencia. The forward, who was signed to compete for a starting job, is on injured reserve for the year after preseason knee surgery.

That is one of several injuries that have chipped away at the roster. Forward Eddie Johnson suffered another concussion early in preseason and his soccer future is uncertain. Center back Futty Danso is out for up to six weeks with a broken foot. Center back David Horst is expected to be out for half the season because of hip surgery. Midfielder Sal Zizzo is preparing to return after offseason knee surgery.

Even though the MLS Cup won’t be handed out until Dec. 1, the games will have plenty of meaning for the Timbers starting Monday night.

That’s because the playoff format is different. Last year the top-10 teams overall made the playoffs. This season it will be the top five teams in each conference. The Western Conference — with the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders considered by many to be title contenders — appears to have more strong teams than the East.

But the Timbers are ready for the challenge.

“There is definitely a good vibe. I think everyone’s excited,” team captain Jack Jewsbury said. “No one really knew what to expect last year. Now there are big expectations internally and externally on this team. I think we’re excited about the challenge.”