The Portland Timbers have been practicing since the end of the season two weeks ago and held their first open practice in that time today.
A squad of young Timbers players gathered at Jeld-Wen Field today to practice under the watchful eye of Sean McAuley. McAuley ran practice in lieu of Gavin Wilkinson, who has shed his interim head coach title and returned to full-time general manager duties. According to McAuley, Wilkinson is abroad looking at players, although he would not give any specifics of GW's travels.
Today's practice squad was composed of most of the Timbers' reserves, as well as several first team players. Although in comments before the end of the season GW said that the post season would be used to evaluate players, McAuley stated firmly that the players in attendance were only there to work on their skills and stay in shape for the off-season.
The players at practice who saw time with the first team this year included keepers Joe Bendik and Jake Gleeson, as well as Brent Richards, Danny Mwanga, Bright Dike, and Kalif Alhassan. Last year's reserves in attendance were Ian Hogg, Charles Renken, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Sebastian Rincon, Jose Adolfo Valencia, and Ryan Kawulok.
The team also had several guest players in attendance as Christian Desir of the academy U-18s, Issa Hassan of the academy U-16's, and trialist Dustin Corea all joined the team. Corea practiced with the team for the last two weeks of the season. Chris Taylor, who has been recovering from hip surgery, was also out on the pitch, but spent his time jogging and doing some light ball work with the training staff.
The Timbers had a number of young, attack minded players at practice today and as a result the short field games that the team played had plenty of flair. Brent Richards, Sebastian Rincon, and Christian Desir in particular showed off some serious skill on the dribble. At one point, Desir found him self one on one with Jose Valencia and put a nice move on the Timbers' designated player, juking him hard enough that Valencia ended up on his backside.
Dribbling was not the only skill on exhibition with Kalif Alhassan, Charles Renken, and Issa Hassan all spreading the ball well from the middle of the pitch and playing quick one-two exchanges with their teammates. Kalif, although he was not he most successful passer, consistently tries outrageous things in practice and today was no different with narrowly slotted balls and surprising lofted passes being the order of the day from the young midfielder.
On what the team hopes to get out of the post-season training sessions
"I think it is important that the players keep working because they are still developing. We've looked at the program and the off-season possibly would have been too long for them to prepare for next season so we are just keeping them working.
The sessions that they've been doing have been based around the ball and they've been getting more technical work. Obviously because they are on their feet they're physically keeping themselves right in preparation for next year."
On balancing working on the players with evaluating the players for next year
"I think it is more of keeping them prepared for next year individually. The more work you can do for developing players, the better it is for them."
On how much input Caleb Porter has on the post-season training sessions
"I think he's got plenty to focus on for the time being with his program back at Akron and I think, generally, this is all an individual based program and each player who is out here is trying to improve their performance irrespective of which coach it is. Whether it is me, [Cameron Knowles], [Amos Magee], whether Caleb or [Merritt Paulson] have input, I think it is about the individual player."
On what he knew about Caleb Porter before Porter was hired as the upcoming head coach of the Timbers
"I knew everything about him because he has a very good reputation. You can't take away the success that he's had in his program. They are second to none. It made it very easy for all of us to be excited for next year because of the job he's done previously and we are all looking forward to working with him."
On his long term plans
"I think in professional sports you are always looking at the long term.I don't think you can say you are doing your job right if you are just looking at next week. We all want this organization to improve year over year and we know that where we finished wasn't good enough and we've got an opportunity for next year to develop something that is better than this year."
On why only the younger players are still training now
"We feel that the players that are out here have a responsibility for their own careers, so they need to train. We want to, as an organization, provide the opportunity for them to train. If we look at some of the older players we've had people go in for operations, we've had somebody such as Jack Jewsbury who played so many games that he probably needs a program which is based individually on his needs, which is to have a break, have a rest. The rest of the guys who are not here are probably in that same mode if they're not on the operating table."
On how many players have undergone off-season surgery
"I am not sure, to be honest. The latest one is David Horst. He had some sort of surgery. Fortunately, here we have a fantastic medical team who keep these players fit for the important games and then, obviously, when we have a break we try to get everybody's physical and mental preparation at the right levels to come back and be solid for next year."
On if any of the surgeries that players have undergone in the off-season will affect their availability next year
"No, but I'm not a medic, as far as I'm concerned nobody is injured, but the medical team are in charge of that."
On the whereabouts of Gavin Wilkinson
"He is away scouting players. It'd be wrong of us as an organization to say exactly where and exactly who because then that alerts everybody else. As always, Gavin is working extremely hard in trying to improve the group for next year."
On Christian Desir and Issa Hassan
"They've been excellent. I am really, really impressed. You know, I'm a big believer in youth development and what I've see excites me. That's long term, but you would love to be in a position where you can see them transition through as a sixteen year old to become thirty six and lifting a trophy. I'm not sure what that situation is in the next twenty years, but from what I've seen the two young academy players have done fantastic and hopefully we'll integrate the club as much as we possibly can with them.
It is important that we have our homegrown players, especially with the support that we've got. We've got fantastic support who like to see homegrown players. We are fortunate that these two have been able to join us for a couple of sessions and we are really pleased with how they've done."
On his involvement with the Timbers' academy over the winter
"I'll try and get to as many [of their games] as I can. I think that's, from an individual perspective, I come from a culture where it is probably more integrated than what it is currently within the MLS, because it is new. Historically, the first team and academy are a joined program with two different outcomes, which is why, when we look at these two guys, we don't put unfair expectations on them and say, well they are going to be in the first team in three years time, because we don't know.
I enjoy watching the young lads train, especially when they play like they did this morning, and I enjoy watching their games because I think they are quite enthusiastic some times. It is a really refreshing thing after you've had a long season."
On when the Timbers will make an announcement about players being waived
"That is the responsibility, I would say, of Gavin and Caleb. That is their main responsibility over the next few months, is building a squad. With regards to waiving the rights of players, I am sure that is an end and when we have any news of that I am sure that you will know about it."