PORTLAND — Major League Soccer doesn’t arrive in Portland for another year. But the Portland Timbers aren’t waiting for 2011 to think big.
The team is planning international exhibitions against top-flight competition. It is hoping to make it’s mark in the U.S. Open Cup tournament. And, most of all, it wants to give its fans the franchise’s first championship.
Work on that project officially begins at 7 p.m. Saturday, when the Rochester Rhinos visit PGE Park to kick off the United States Soccer Federation Division 2 Pro League season. It is the first of 18 home matches on a schedule that will spiced with international exhibitions still to be announced.
This is the franchise’s 10th season playing in North America’s second tier professional soccer league. And the Timbers want to go out on top — a place the franchise has never been.
“It’s very important to me,” Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said about winning a title this season. “I wouldn’t say it’s critical from a 2011 standpoint, but it would be great for our fans. We’ve had the best fans in the USL, and they’ve never had a championship here. We’ve had teams that were championship quality teams, including last year, but you’ve still got to do it.”
Twice in the last three seasons, Portland has posted the best regular-season record in the league only to be foiled in the playoffs. Last season, the Timbers put together a 24-match unbeaten stretch and finished at the top of the standings, only to be knocked off by rival Vancouver in the semifinal playoff round.
“Everyone knows that the way last season ended was not how anyone wanted it to end,” said defender Stephen Keel, one of 14 returning players. “At the end of the day, it’s about winning, it’s about championships. You have to consider it a disappointment last year that we were bounced by Vancouver.”
Motivated by that disappointment, the Timbers management put an emphasis on adding to their depth, particularly up front.
Assistant coach Amos Magee will handle coaching duties on Saturday. Timbers head coach Gavin Wilkinson — wearing his cap as technical director for the Timbers’ MLS franchise — is this week visiting several Premier League clubs in England.
Magee said the Timbers had a lot of talented players to choose from in building this roster.
“A lot of people wanted to be here, not just for MLS, but for the crowds, and for the professional atmosphere that Gavin and Merritt have created over the last several years,” Magee said.
Mandjou Keita and George Josten, starting forwards for much of last season, are back. But newcomers O.J. Obatola, and rookies Doug DeMartin and Bright Dike each bring intriguing potential.
In midfield, last season’s mainstays are back with Ryan Pore and Brian Farber on the flanks and Johan Claesson and Tony McManus in the middle. Other returnees among the 10 midfielders on the roster are veteran Takayuki Suzuki, Keith Savage and 20-year-old Alex Nimo.
Perhaps the most intriguing positions on the field at the start of this season are the outside backs. Quavas Kirk, who was a forward on the U17 and U20 national teams, comes to Portland from Minnesota to further his transition to defender as the Timbers right back. Timbers veteran Scot Thompson remains in the mix at that spot. On the left side, Ian Joy will try to fill the shoes of the retired David Hayes, last season’s captain.
Keel and Mamadou Danso return in the middle of the defense, where veteran Cameron Knowles is expected to miss at least half of this season as he continues to mend a broken leg suffered late last season.
The Timbers also added depth at goalkeeper, with MLS veteran Adin Brown joining competing with last season’s regular Steve Cronin.
“We will be organized defensively, and we will be, I think, dynamic and exciting going forward” on the attack, Magee predicted.
With quality players competing for playing time and working to enhance their chances of playing in MLS, these Timbers have the ingredients to make a big splash in 2010.
“We have the ultimate motivation for this year and beyond,” Magee said. “I think one of the things we need to do as a coaching staff, and I think we’ve done, is to temper expectations.
“This is not about the playoffs yet. This is not about the Open Cup. It’s not about playing Seattle. It’s not about MLS. What it is about is Saturday night against Rochester.”