Bright Dike is, depending on your perspective, our best forward who should start whenever he’s healthy, a great 70th minute substitute, or a guy who simply doesn’t belong in MLS.
Even as the season winds down, it is important to consider his role in the squad going forward. Jose Adolfo Valencia finally made his debut with the reserves in their final game, and if everything pans out as the front office expected when they signed him, he is the Timbers’ striker of the future. However, when he was signed, Merritt Paulson, John Spencer, and Gavin Wilkinson all warned Timbers fans not to expect to see a lot of Valencia right away. Since he spent most of this season rehabbing his knee instead of training with the team, it may still be a while before he sees regular time with the first team.
In the meantime, the Timbers need a striker. And depending on the formation the Timbers play in the future, Valencia may need a strike partner. Since previous attempts by the Timbers to sign star forwards have fallen flat, the team may be best off relying on someone they already have, most likely Dike, Danny Mwanga, or Kris Boyd if he stays with the Timbers through the offseason and into 2013.
There are legitimate complaints to be made about Dike. He has a lousy touch. When he receives a pass, his first touch is often heavy enough to send the ball out of his reach. When he tries to bring a ball down out of the air, it tends to bounce off of him wildly instead of falling at his feet.
Dike has also received criticism for missing easy shots, notably the shot in the closing minutes of the second home game against Seattle, which ricocheted off the post instead of finding the net, where it would have won the Timbers the Cascadia Cup. (In fairness, however, Dike got the shot off in spite of two Seattle defenders in front of him, so it was not as though he had an unobstructed shot on goal.)
In spite of several near misses, Dike is the most efficient striker on the team. His goals-per-game average is 0.49, the best on the team ahead of Mwanga’s 0.42 goals per game and Boyd’s 0.33. Does it matter that a striker misses a shot from inside the six-yard box if he can dribble the ball around a prostrate defender and put it in the goal from a difficult angle like Dike did against D.C. United?
In addition to scoring more frequently than the Timbers’ other strikers, Dike is also the most physical. Not for nothing has his name become a synonym for injuring someone. He has the potential to be a Conor Casey-esque forward who can push centerbacks around and not get pushed off the ball himself. He goes after 50-50 balls with conviction, as two Sounders can surely confirm. He does all of this without being a dirty or overly aggressive player.
Though Boyd has a killer instinct and a nose for goal, Dike is probably more versatile. As John Spencer and later Gavin Wilkinson told the media time and time again, Boyd needs good service to get goals. Most of his seven goals came from receiving a rare perfect pass in front of the goal (see: Seattle) or from capitalizing on keepers’ mistakes in classic poacher fashion (see: Chivas, L.A.).
Looking at Boyd’s style of play, it’s hard to imagine him pulling off something like Dike’s third goal in the reserve match against Chivas, when he passed the ball to himself around a defender and dribbled almost half the length of the field to a 1v1 with the keeper. It’s equally hard to picture him leaping through the air to meet the header that Dike put in against Real Salt Lake. Dike has also received a couple of perfect crosses he was able to calmly tap home, as he did with his first goal this season against the New York Red Bulls, but he’s capable of a lot more than that. He brings a level of speed, agility, and physicality that Boyd simply lacks.
As for Mwanga, his three goals this season have shown he has incredible potential. He’s inconsistent though; when he’s not playing and scoring against San Jose, he often seems to disappear from the field. He is also definitively not a target forward and seems less suited to play in the 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation that the Timbers have favored lately.
Instead of rushing out to buy a new "star" striker this offseason, the Timbers should work with the plethora of forwards already on the roster. Dike certainly has flaws, but with four goals in 10 game (seven starts) this season, he has proven he has a big upside. A couple of shots that bounce off the woodwork don’t erase that record.