KANSAS CITY, MO - JANUARY 12: Number 8 overall pick, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, selected by the Portland Timbers, talks to the media during the first round of the 2012 MLS SuperDraft presented by Adidas on January 12, 2012 at Kansas City Convention Center in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
The Portland Timbers held a lively practice today, playing some of what could actually be called soccer for the first time this preseason. After the usual warm-ups and passing drills, the Timbers played games of 9v9 which was a deviation from last season which saw the Timbers doing purely fitness and passing drills for their first several weeks together.
One notable absence from practice was Jose Adolfo Valencia. According to the Timbers he was undergoing further fitness testing. Valencia was among the most tired looking of the players at the end of yesterday’s practice. While any sort of serious injury seems unlikely, Merritt Paulson did have a rather ominous tweet today.
@MerrittPaulson tweeted, "Sports can be a cruel, cruel bitch"
Worrisome, but could be anything.
Despite this, in practice there was plenty of reason to have high hopes for the season. Most of the second year players looked very sharp with a few in particular standing out. Early in the 9v9 games Jack Jewsbury had several powerful shots and even managed to score on a diving header. Bright Dike also stood out early on, using his strength and speed to move defenders and create opportunities. As the practice wore on some players lagged behind, but it was not until the final 9v9 games that Eric Alexander was able to take over the game, distributing the ball well from a central midfield position and taking a couple of Jewsbury-esque shots. The most consistently impressive player throughout the practice, however, was Rodney Wallace. Combining, passing, dribbling, shooting, defending, he managed to look good doing it all.
More practice notes plus quotes from John Spencer after the jump.
Trialists Joe Bendick and Franck Songo’o were still with the team today, both having good and bad moments. Bendick made several good reaction stops while playing 9v9 but had some very questionable distribution on the small field the game was being played on. Songo’o played primarily out on the wing with a strong tendency to drift inside to an almost central position. As should probably be expected of someone that trained with Barcelona his skills with the ball at is feet were quite impressive, surprisingly however, his passing seemed somewhat suspect and he often held the ball for too long. Songo’o at times played as though he was trying to impress the coaches with his individual skill rather than playing with his teammates.
The Timbers draft picks served to illustrate the differences between college and professional soccer as most looked a step behind the play, although by the end of practice most had picked up the pace and were combining more effectively with their teammates. Of the draftees Ryan Kawulok and Brendan King looked most composed and up to the speed of play at the professional level.
On Andrew Jean-Baptiste
Everybody just expects because he is our first round draft pick he is going to come in and start, I’m not saying he thinks that but it is the perception of the fans. It’s a huge come from college soccer to professional soccer. We signed the best college player in the country last year and ever for the first three of four weeks of preseason Darlington was kind of overwhelmed with the demands of the professional game and how tough it is on a daily basis. He has impressed us, we knew a lot about him. We scouted him and a few other for the last twelve months. We know what he has got, what his attributes are, but obviously it’s a different pace of game. We’ve got stuff that we can build on, which is a very good athlete. It is a learning curve for a lot of young players.
On the difference in Darlington Nagbe from last year
I don’t think I am wrong in saying this, you can take it for what it is worth, He’s by far technically the best player we’ve got. It’s just plain and simple. He’s the most natural soccer player. Up there natural soccer wise with the Landon Donovans and Brad Davises of this world. Does he have the belief in his ability? If he does he will be one of the best players in the league.
On the change in preseason routine from last season
I think that just last year we were training over there at the Adidas complex and we never had the space to do what we wanted to do. Now we have this tremendous facility here, so why not use it?
It’s one great thing about American players, they look after themselves year round. So when they go on the off season they look after their bodies and they do a lot of upper body weights, et cetera, more than they would during the season so they come back in decent shape. We spoke to the strength and conditioning coach and he said the guys are in good enough health that we can just open up and play a little bit of football. There’s nothing worse than running every single day, you know? You can do a lot of disguised running exercises, but this is the best part of the year, when they get a ball and play games.
On what he is looking for during preseason scrimmages
I just want to see a little bit of quality. The emphasis was [on] always moving, opengin your legs up, making runs that you maybe wouldn’t make in a game, but we’re just trying to get them to make fifty or sixty yard runs rather than just taking them to the side and doing running exercises. Trying to get them to do their running in the game, because it always takes your mind off it when the ball is there.
On the captaincy
I don’t think it is a decision to be made. I wouldn’t be far off in saying that Jewsbury, as long as I am here, will captain the Portland Timbers. Other than barring injury I don’t see why I should change it. He has been a great leader. He’s not a ra-ra type of guy, he’s a guy that goes and speaks quietly and has a lot of experience in the league.
I’m pretty happy with him, I think the guys are too. I think he’s a good, he gives us good balance. He’s a very balanced athlete and person. I can’t speak highly enough of him, I love the guy. For me, unless he doesn't want to be captain, he’ll wear the arm band.
On the starting line-up
The only thing I will guarantee is that you (John Strong) will never play for the Portland Timbers.
I think that spaces are up for grabs. There’s going to be certain players that we know are going to play if they are fit and healthy because they are good players, but everybody has got to come in with a clean slate. I am coming in with a clean slate. I don’t sit back [and say] great we got forty two points and eleven wins. It doesn’t matter. We’ve still got to come back here with that same hunger and desire. We keep preaching that message to the players. You’ve got to be hungry, you’ve got to be full of desire, you’ve got to have courage to play here and the coaching staff have got to want to bring success to the city and to the owner because I don’t think there would be a better place to win a championship than this city, than anywhere else in the league because this place is just incredible.