As the Portland Timbers season slinks towards its final conclusion, we can finally step out of the nightmare that has been 2012 and into the future. As we come into the offseason in Portland, everything is up in the air. There is no player who is untouchable, no position that is unattainable, and no solution to the problem of how to fix this ailing franchise that is unthinkable. With Caleb Porter very much an unknown coming into the 2013 season, this Timbers team should, and most likely, will look very different on opening day next March. In this column, I will break down each player, and put them as either a keeper, or a goner. 2012 was one long, dark and often ghastly year for the Timbers, but with this club's resources and vision, good times may be just around the corner.
Donovan Ricketts - About three years ago, I was talking to a writer for the US Soccer Federation, and he told me that Donovan Ricketts is one of the most dominant CONCACAF players ever, from any position. The big man has certainly lived up to his billing in Portland. Ricketts was brought in to a tough situation, and has done his job admirably. Not many in Portland were happy see Ricketts pull on the gloves at Jeld-Wen Field after he was traded for likable leader Troy Perkins, but the Jamaican has been just as good. Ricketts' command, often dominance of his box and coverage of the goal, is unparalleled in MLS; his 6'5 frame allowing him to get to shots and pick off crosses that many other goalkeepers physically can't get. At 35, Ricketts is getting up there in age, but goalkeeper is the one position where that does not matter; we've seen multitudes of goalkeepers play successfully on into their 40's. As long as Ricketts can stay fit, his natural abilities will shine through for many years to come.
Darlington Nagbe - Even if Darlington Nagbe wasn't the most succinctly and consistently brilliant player on the Portland Timbers, even if Nagbe wasn't the face of a franchise that desperately needs a star, even if Nagbe doesn't have the possibility to become a US national team fixture in the future, he'd still be in Portland in 2013. Why? Caleb Porter. We know Nagbe's composure and deftness on the ball are unique in MLS; his ability to weave through defenders opens things up for the Timbers time and time again. Mainly because of this talent, Nagbe has become the focal point of the Timbers attack, dispersing the ball from a free-role in the center midfield for most of this breakout season. Still, things haven't been all peachy. Nagbe has a tendency to disappear in games, especially since defenses have been paying more attention to him. Nagbe also isn't a big enough goal threat and doesn't defend well. The thought is, bringing in Porter, Nagbe's college head coach - the two won an NCAA title at Akron - will help Darlington settle down, stop bouncing around positions, and find his true potential. In any case, Nagbe should be in Portland for years to come.
Diego Chara - Where Darlington Nagbe is fluent and eloquent, control of the game, fluidity in attack, Diego Chara is curt and to the point. When Chara arrived from Columbia days into the Timbers’ first MLS season, Chara was billed as an attacking midfielder. Porter would do well to get him back in that role, because this year, Chara has been used as a defensive midfield enforcer, a role that he does well in, but at too high a price. Chara the league in yellow cards, and he has also been sent off and suspended this year. He has a pension for recklessness and it hurts the team. Chara is a little ball of fury, but his talents would be better suited to an attacking role, as we saw against Seattle, when his direct and physical play provided a nice contrast with Nagbe's play. The fact that Chara's always running - he has the most impressive stamina on the team - will let him get back and defend as well. No doubt Diego Chara is a good player, he's just not a designated player, and not a defensive player. If Porter can figure him out next year and beyond, the Timbers midfield will benefit.
Jack Jewsbury - Where Nagbe is brilliant, and Chara is charging, Captain Jack is Solid Jack, the calm leader of the Timbers midfield. Jack Jewsbury's talents are hard to appreciate. He does the little things as a defensive midfielder, the main link between the defenders and attackers, the man usually in charge of starting attacks and keeping possession. In these respects, Jewsbury is solid, but nothing more. Where the Timbers really value their captain is in two different places: Jewsbury has an "it factor" that only certain players posses. His in-swinging corners are sublime, always in the pocket of space about six yards from goal, right in the center of the six-yard box that goals usually occur from. It's interesting to think about whether the Timbers’ dearth of goals this season is directly connected to Jewsbury not taking corners and free-kicks; we can't underestimate how important the four-five goals that Jewsbury created in 2011 were to the Timbers success. Jack can also hit a ball; he's the Timbers’ biggest long-range shooting threat. But Jewsbury is Captain Jack for a reason: he's a leader. Not a special leader, but an everyman's everyday leader; one who can relate to his teammates and provide the constant example of professionalism needed to thrive in MLS. He's not fantastic, he's just solid. If the Timbers had 11 Jack Jewsbury's, they wouldn't be in the position they are right now.
Kalif Alhasson/Franck Songo'o/Sal Zizzo - The Timbers’ triple trouble on the wing all bring some wonderful traits to the table, but this keep comes with a caveat: one has to go. The Timbers are going to need to rebuild their defense and strike-force from the ground up this offseason, and one of these players will be fantastic trade bait. A young, skillful speedy winger is tough to come by, and the Timbers have three. Sacrificing one for a much-needed center-back, full-back or striker is a sensible move. Who then should go? It's a tough choice. Alhasson is the most tantalizing, mercurial, often awing, often pull-your-hair out frustrating, wild-card pick of the bunch. There have been times when Alhasson has looked like a magician with moves and dribbling and play that leaves you with your mouth hanging open. Opening day against Philadelphia was a game I'll never forget, just because of how amazing Alhasson was. But it's not very often that Alhasson has been worthy of this praise. He hasn't played almost at all this year, especially since John Spencer was sacked. He's had nagging injuries, attitude problems, and a refusal to play defense keep him out of the team, and it's very possible that Alhasson will be another player in a long line that never understood how to be a consistent professional, and never lived up to his talent. But I can't let this big a gem get away from me if I'm Portland. Because if Alhasson does figure it out, and the odds may be long, it'll be something special.
Franck Songo'o made a slow start to life in Portland, dealing with injuries and settling in to a new country and league. But Songo'o has hit his stride as of late, reminding people that he is a product of Barcelona's famed academy. Songo'o's skill and play is very European, and that's often a good thing. Songo'o is a talented, if inconsistent player; his dribbling skills and goal threat is an asset to the Timbers. At times, Songo'o can drift out of the game, and he's a very poor passer when dribbling at pace - he's cost the Timbers on many fast-breaks by not getting his head up and playing passes soon enough. Still, Songo'o is the surest thing of the three, a proven, talented player who can be great at select times. Still, he'd be my choice to trade. Songo'o doesn't have anything tying him to Portland, and he's the kind of player that I could see deciding to take another shot at Europe sometime down the line. Songo'o is good, but I don't see the greatness. I do see the trade potential.
Sal Zizzo is another player that had a hard time cracking the starting lineup over the last two years, and one of the true criticisms of John Spencer was that he never quite figured out how to use his wingers. Zizzo's blinding pace makes him dangerous by itself, but his ball control and growing sense of the game have made taken his game to the next level in the last month or so. Zizzo is still a developing player, and an incisive one, something the Timbers often lack on offense, and his prospects for success look promising in Portland. Sal is adored by the fans, and he's set up a food cart, Zizzo's FC downtown. Zizzo should keep improving the more he plays, and he seems like the kind of player that will fit in Caleb Porter's, young-up-tempo system. It's also doubtful that Zizzo would, at this point, be as big a trade piece as the proven Songo'o or the mouth-watering Alhasson. Zizzo should be part of the Porter revolution.
Danny Mwanga - The trade of the obviously incompetent Jorge Perlaza for hometown hero and former # 1 MLS draft pick Danny Mwanga should have been one of the trades of the season. The Timbers got a bright young star for a person who is now out of the league, but things never quite worked out. Mwanga got some early run, but was flushed out of the starting lineup and eventually any playing time at all when John Spencer was sacked, Wilkinson choosing to go with one striker, Kris Boyd and then Bright Dike. When Mwanga has played, he's been good. He scored against San Jose at home and played well off the bigger striker, and his brace against the Earthquakes earlier this month was a pointed sign towards his abundant natural talent. What Mwanga needs is a chance, an extended chance, so we can see once and for all if he is a star in the making, or a bust who is a reserve player. Somebody will give Mwanga that chance - his credentials are too good to be ignored - and it might as well be Portland. If Mwanga can find consistency and get his feet under him, he'll be a fan favorite and goal scorer on a team that needs goals. If he's not, the Timbers can cut their losses. But Mwanga is the type of young, talented player Caleb Porter needs, and he has star potential. Give him a shot, and we'll see if he can realize it.
Bright Dike - The jury is still very much out on Bright Dike. While I certainly like Dike's exuberance and work-rate up top, a stark, and welcome contrast to the despondent Kris Boyd, I'm not sold on the lumbering Oklahoman being the striker of the future. Dike hasn't convinced me that he's talented enough to have this big task of leading the Timbers attack full-time; he's not a particularly good passer, he's had a hard time connecting passes with the midfield and holding up the ball to start attacks, despite his size. Dike does work hard off the ball, and has proved a reasonably good finisher who can get in goal scoring positions, but he hasn't played a meaningful match yet. It was Timbers’ management's best decision of the year to send Dike out on loan to the LA Blues midseason. He improved greatly from playing regularly against lesser competition and focusing on what he needs to improve on. Dike is a likable guy, and a nice player. I wouldn't commit to him yet, but I'd keep him in Portland as he continues to develop.
Eric Brunner - It's very possible that Eric Brunner, yes Eric Brunner, is at the root of the Timbers slid into MLS oblivion this year. As my astute father has pointed out to me numerous times, it was around the time Brunner was out with a concussion that the wheels came off in Portland. It's a valid point. Of all the Timbers’ center defenders, Brunner is the only consistent one who isn't plagued by momentary loss of brain function on a regular basis. Brunner is a solid defender, and the hang-dog Ohioan became the leader of the defense last season. The Timbers missed Brunner this year more than they realized, and his presence at the back next season should shore up a unit that was often catastrophic this campaign. The hope is that Brunner has fully recovered from his serious concussion which sidelined him for almost four months, and turns himself from the forgotten man to the all-important man next season.
Andrew John-Baptiste - Andrew John-Baptiste started and scored in the Timbers’ season opener against Philadelphia, but has only featured once since. AJB, the Timbers’ first round pick in last year's MLS SuperDraft out of UConn, is a bright prospect, and should work his way into more minutes next season under Caleb Porter.
Eric Alexander - Do you know who leads the Portland Timbers in assists this year? No, it's not Sal Zizzo or Jack Jewsbury or Kalif Alhasson. It's Eric Alexander. He leads the team with six assists, despite starting less than half the team's games this season. Alexander almost invisibly set the table on a number of occasions, most often for Kris Boyd, to get the majority of his six assists. Interestingly enough, it was Gavin Wilkinson, everyone's favorite Aussie, who decided to sit down the most underrated player in Portland for the majority of his stint in charge at Jeld-Wen Field to finish out the year. Alexander isn't pacy or flashy or flamboyant or even noticeable; he's the guy at the back of the classroom that knows all the answers, but never raises his hand. I think Caleb Porter should raise Alexander's hand for him next year; the Timbers were most consistent offensively this year when Alexander was playing regularly. Let him sit in the midfield, and quietly pick the passes that can make an uptempo offense full of young players click. Alexander is in no way remarkable. But more often than not, he's effective, and that's what the Timbers should be after in 2013 and beyond.
Jake Gleeson/Joe Bendik - The Timbers’ two young backup goalkeepers are solid kids, but the Timbers need to decide who is the backup, and if that player is the next in line in the Portland goal. Although the fans seem to be on Gleeson's side, both coaches this year have picked Bendik ahead of him. In any case, the Timbers should be set at the goalkeeper position in 2013 and beyond.
Rodney Wallace - Although Wallace is a diabolical full-back, his value has grown on me over the course of this year. Rodney Wallace, and players like him all over the sports world, are valuable because they're versatile, even their not very good. Wallace can play full-back, holding midfield, or right or left midfield, which is rare in soccer. To his credit, Wallace has scored some big goals for the Timbers the last two years: last year's stunner in the home opener against Chicago, and the equalizer against Seattle a few weeks ago. While Wallace shouldn't be a starter for the Timbers, his ability to be a stopgap in multiple places should keep him around at least for next year. The team does, however, need to rework Wallace's contract. This year, he was the third-highest played non DP on the roster.
Brent Richards - I wouldn't be playing Richards regularly, but he reminds me of Mike Fucito - a little jitterbug of a player who can make an impact in certain situations off the bench. Richards did well in his few starts this year, and that warrants another year in PDX.
Kris Boyd - The demonstrative, bullying, gesticulating Boyd has been a bigger bust in Portland than Kenny Cooper ever was. I'll start this by saying that Boyd was infrequently brilliant this year, scoring some fantastic goals, but when you have his paycheck and his stature, you simply cannot put in a season like Boyd did in 2012 and not feel the repercussions. From the minute Boyd was strung along to Portland through John Spencer's brother-in-law, the all-time leading goal scorer in the Scottish Premier League gave people the feeling that he was too big, too important, and too good to be playing in MLS. Boyd never worked his hardest, never tracked back on defense, and when he wasn't scoring goals, he was a rotting albatross up top. Boyd didn't link up with midfielders well, and he would get easily frustrated - roaring and growling at referees and teammates doesn't help anyone. It's no surprise with Boyd's salary and behavior that the rest of the team seems to hate the man. I refuse to believe that Boyd is washed up; I just don't think he put himself out there fully very often for his team. The quality that produced some of the team's best goals is still there, but his lack of concentration, like the missed penalty against Cal FC that left the club in shambles and fellow Scotsman Spencer on the fritz, negated any positivity Boyd brought to the table. By the time the Wilkinson era got into week two, Boyd had quit. At least you couldn't question Kenny Cooper's effort. Cutting ties with Boyd would rid the Timbers of their worst synergy from 2012, and give the team an open, much-needed designated player spot, not to mention the fact that it would considerably lessen Merritt Paulson's wage bill. Boyd is the worst flop in Timbers’ history. I think he figures it out somewhere down the line. I don't think he deserves the chance to figure it out here.
Jose Adolfo Valencia - Mr. Valencia has been the miss of the lot in the Wilkinson era in Portland. The Aussie boss picked Valencia out of his favorite hunting ground, Columbia, late last year, but Valencia hasn't gotten on the field in Portland. It's all gone wrong. Valencia was made the Timbers’ last designated player but within days of his arrival, a knee injury was discovered, forcing him to miss the entire year. It is believed that the Timbers missed this in Valencia's medical, or that the Columbian side failed to tell the Timbers about the injury. In any case, it was a season down the drain. But in his off-time, Valencia went and got himself arrested stemming from an altercation with a girlfriend. Valencia's case is scheduled to go to trial soon. Needless to say, Valencia's time in Portland has been a nightmare. Letting him go would free up another designated player slot for Portland to make a possible franchise reinvigorating signing, and let Valencia sort out his various problems before he moves on with his life.
Steven Smith - It clearly showed how desperate the Timbers were at full-back this year that trialest Steven Smith was snapped up and thrown straight into the first team almost days after his arrival in Portland. Despite Smith's pedigree - he has Rangers on the CV just like a fellow Timber bust - it was impossible to see how Smith would have made the reserves’ traveling squad. Smith's staggering lack of pace made quite a few wingers look better than they were in their local U9 team. People in the Timbers organization apologized for Smith by saying that he was having a hard time adjusting to MLS and America. Valid reasons, but since Smith has "hit his stride" in the last few months, it's still been clear he doesn't have the quality to start for Portland. Although Smith's positioning has improved, his ultimate slowness is still obvious, and it hurts his ability to get forward in attack. As opposed to some of the other Timbers fullbacks, Smith is not an attacking threat, and the fact that he's almost always a defensive liability makes him next to useless. Smith has been a disaster, another failed full-back for Wilkinson. Gavin might not take any more chances on players from Columbia (see Perlaza, Mosquera, Valencia). Add Scotland to the list.
Futty Danso - Don't take this the wrong way: I like Futty. I like him a lot. I like him first for his name, and second for the big goals he scored last season that made him a folk hero in the Rose City. And while Futty isn't a main culprit of the defensive lapses that have been the Timbers biggest problem this year, he's prone to them just like the rest of the defense that started ahead of him this season. Futty is an inconsistent player, and he lost his starting place this season, convincingly, to the likes of Hayner Mosquera and David Horst, who aren't much better than him anyway. That tells you something about Futty and the team’s evaluation of him. While he did good things for this team in 2011, Futty's regular walkabout days and lack of first team opportunities mean that it's time to call time on Danso's time in Portland.
David Horst - David Horst is another player that I like, but one, who unfortunately, has defined incompetency this year. The latest $25,000 penalty brouhaha has been just the latest kerfuffle involving the perpetually wrong-place wrong-time Horst, who has been the defender that has either inadvertently or obviously given up the most opposition goals this season. Horst has been punished this year by his lack of pace and creativity, being out run and out guiled by various forwards that have burned the Timbers for multiple goals this year. The bigger problem has been the numerous times this year that Horst has been standing five feet away from an unmarked player in the Timbers box, and when those players score, scenes that make you want to throw up blood. Horst just isn't a starter in this league; he's a backup who, for some reason, has been made the rock of the Timbers’ defense this year. In fact, Horst is the fourth best center-back on the current team, and the current Timbers have one of the worst center-back collections in MLS. Before Horst came to Portland, he hardly ever played. Horst has made numerous comments this year about auditioning for incoming head coach Porter, he understands that his time may just be up in Portland, and it probably is, at least in his 2012 capacity.
Hayner Mosquera - Unlike many foreigners that come to MLS that struggle adapting to the league and country and eventually get better, Hayner Mosquera, who was brought over in the offseason from Columbia, started well and got worse. Mosquera seemed like a very solid center defender when he was inserted into the starting lineup at the beginning of the season, the best days of the season for the Timbers’ defense. That assessment hasn't lasted. Mosquera has gotten into a predicament on multiple occasions with poor positioning, between Mosquera and Horst, the Timbers managed to mark almost no one the whole year. This issue was underscored when Mosquera made a poor judgment by trying to head a ball behind him in the dying moments against San Jose, only to head it right to Chris Wondolowski - unmarked on the back post - who scored to deny the Timbers their first road win of the year. Eric Brunner easily would have headed it away had the ball been left to him. Mosquera has had numerous chances, as the most talented player on a poor back-line this year, to standout, and make a name for himself. But as the year went on, little mistakes and brain-freezes cost his team, and should cost him going forward in Portland.
Mike Fucito - Mike Fucito is a nice little player, who never quite got off the ground in Portland. Fucito's energy and jingling on-pitch persona are appreciated, but it doesn't appear Fucito does much else than annoy defenses. Fucito didn't score this year, and I can't see a future for this former Sounder in Portland.
Steve Purdy - Purdy has been floating around in Portland for the last few years, squirting into the starting 11 for a few games before fading out of the team sheet for the rest of the year. Purdy is a fine player, and an El Salvador international, but it's time for him to move on from Portland.
Lovel Palmer - Lovel Palmer isn't a terrible player, but he's the epitome of the mediocrity that Gavin Wilkinson has filled the Portland Timbers with. Palmer is a less dynamic, if slightly more consistent version of Rodney Wallace: a full-back by trade that can slide into the center of midfield and do some different things for his club. Trouble is, Palmer is rather poor and boring at everything he does; the biggest moment of his season was getting sent off against Seattle at Jeld-Wen in June. Porter and Portland 2.0 needs to flush out the average and uninspiring players like Palmer to move this team forward.
Kosuke Kimura - When the Timbers traded for Kosuke Kimura from Colorado midseason, I was excited about the possibility that Kimura could shore up the Timbers’ shambolic full-back position. The opposite happened. He made the situation worse. Kimura has been the butter to every other attacking player in MLS' knife, being sliced apart time after time after time. In fact, you could just give up his side of defense as beaten when the other team would enter the Timbers’ third of the field. Kimura, who you could see enjoyed playing in Portland this year, was often out of position but more often, and perhaps more disconcertingly, left for dead in 1v1 situations again and again this season. Yet Wilkinson has stuck by his man since he came over in July. Kimura was the weak link in a defensive line that couldn't afford it. His time in Portland should most certainly be done.
The Timbers have a lot of work to do. Caleb Porter and his crew need to completely restaff and reshape the Portland defense, and nab a headlining striker to lead the attacking force. The Timbers should have at least one designated player spot to work with as they try to reinvigorate a fan base that wants a reason to believe. Quick turnarounds happen often in MLS. Timbers 2.0 will strive to improve a broken team in the present, and build a high-powered team for the future. They get to work when the final whistle blows on the Timbers’ disastrous 2012 season. It should be a fun ride.