As the Portland Timbers U-23s prepare to take on the Charleston Battery, the reigning champions of USL Pro, in tomorrow night's US Open Cup match, things are just starting to come together for the team. The U-23s are just over a week into the season and have managed to cram in approximately ten practices as a team and three games, of which they have claimed victory in each.
Of course, the Battery are a class above the Timbers' other opponents so far. So far, tomorrow's visitors are in second place place in the USL with six wins and two losses to their name. Both of those losses have come on the road, but three of their wins have been away from home as well.
Despite this, the Timbers are chomping at the bit to take on a team of professionals. Forward Zack Foxhoven, who plays his college ball at the University of Louiseville and is the brother of Thorns striker Danielle Foxhoven, summed up the feeling around practice today:
I'm not really nervous. I don't think the guys are really nervous either. I think that we all know that we can play with these guys if we just go at them. We don't want to sit in, we want to play Portland soccer and just go at them. I think we are all good enough to hang with them and it should be a good game.
Foxhoven should be riding high early on in the season. As a forward he has already picked up two goals in under 150 minutes on the pitch.
That Foxhoven, along with fellow forwards Mark Sherrod and Clark Phillips, has been such a threat with so little time together as a team speaks to both the level of talent on display and the extent to which the young players have bought into the possession based attack instituted since Caleb Porter's arrival in Portland.
Foxhoven distills the Timbers philosophy into three simple elements that sound easy enough to get on board with: "go at people, keep the ball, and have fun."
To Jim Rilatt, however, it is a little more involved than that.
It mimics what most American kids think they are. They want to play, and sometimes it is convincing them that they are not the player they are but they are a good ball winner. So, taking Caleb's system of sharing the ball and movement, the kids seems to really enjoy it.
Porter's influence is seen in more than just the style of play. An influx of Akron players to the U-23s is starting to arrive now that the semester has wrapped up in Ohio, including another weapon up top in Saad Abdul-Salaam who arrives in town tomorrow.
One Akron player who has been here since February, however, is keeper David Meves. Meves, whose rights are owned by the Timbers after he was selected in the 2013 draft, has been a large part of the quick cohesion of the Timbers backline. After some nervy moments in their opener against Sacremento, the Timbers have quickly solidified the defensive end of things, shutting out a Seattle team in the PDL opener who were coming off a 5-0 Open Cup win.
Meves, speaking after this morning's practice, was quick to credit his defenders with the communication necessary to get the defense in line.
We've done very well to start and I think that a lot of it has just been that the guys coming in have been ready to go right away and a lot of communication in the back, a lot of talking.
That defense will certainly be tested against Charleston, a team with a long history in the Open Cup including an appearance in the finals in 2008, but the U-23s, with a little luck and some home field advantage, have a real chance at advancing.
- Defensive midfielder Eric Miller is the real deal. Few players look as assured as Miller out there on the practice pitch and he has the tolls to back that up.
- Tab Ramos apparently agrees as Miller has been called up to the US U-20s side for the Toulon Tournament in France next week, so tomorrow's match will be your last chance to see him play in person for a while, especially if he makes this summer's U-20 World Cup squad.
- Brazilian Gabriel Conelian is an exciting player to watch. Conelian, although he only turned 23 two months ago, is the old man of the team and slots into an attacking midfield role, similar to what we have seen from Diego Valeri. Physically and in his style of play, Conelian reminds me of David Ferreira
- I think that I have said it every time I have written something about the U-23s, but I love what Mark Sherrod brings to the team. He is a hard working forward with a scoring touch and some real leadership qualities. This was evident in practice today as the team worked on their high pressure and Sherrod was able to force the defenders into turnovers time and time again.