Opening day of the 2012 season was a long time ago. Merritt Paulson was guaranteeing a playoff berth on Twitter, John Spencer had signed Scottish pal Kris Boyd, and Gavin Wilkinson was mostly ambiguous general manager, quietly working in the background of what was supposed to be one of MLS’ breakout clubs.
Obviously, things didn’t go quite as they were supposed to. Spencer was gone halfway through the season, Wilkinson was shoved to the fore, and the season collapsed in an embarrassing imbroglio of unprofessionalism and losing. But for one day, one single day, 2012 was wonderful.
That one day was the first day, a 3-1 romp over Philadelphia to open the season in torrential rain at Jeld-Wen Field. The Timbers dominated possession and created chances against a playoff team from the year before, they fought back from a goal down, and scored three times in the second-half in front of the Timbers Army. Rookie Andrew Jean-Baptiste made up for an own-goal with a tally of his own, and Kris Boyd scored a beautiful flicked header – possibly his best goal ever in a Timbers shirt.
But the star of the show was undoubtedly Kalif Alhassan. The Ghanaian had been in and out of Spencer’s team in 2011, showing incredible talent and skill in spurts, but disappearing for even longer stretches. Spencer was rumored to be frustrated with Alhassan’s defensive work-rate, but he was obviously a player to watch for the future, and he was going to play a big part in the 2012 season.
Starting against the Union, Alhassan was simply scintillating. His dribbling skill, speed and deft touch were superb to watch and impossible to defend, but even more impressive were Alhassan’s creative instincts, along with his readiness to try the impossible. Alhassan skated by defenders all night, creating Boyd’s game-winner, and scoring himself in the 76th minute.
After skirting down the right wing, Alhassan lifted a lob towards the back-post that went sailing over Zach McMath and into the back of the net. Whether he meant a shot or not, Alhassan deserved the goal. It was his first in MLS.
The rest of the season, Alhassan never rose to his peak performance again. Sure, he had standout games – as he always has – but most of the season was spent on the sidelines, either benched, or out through injury.
This season saw Alhassan back in the starting lineup from day one, but the affable Ghanaian couldn’t retain his starting place. Alhassan was substituted in the team’s first two matches of the season, against New York and Montreal, and has been mostly ineffective in limited action so far in 2013.
At times this year, Alhassan has looked like a match-winner. Against New England, Alhassan almost won the game two times in the five minutes after he was introduced with unstoppable solo runs. Then when he gets more extensive minutes, like against Dallas when he came on early for Diego Valeri, he disappears.
Before matches, the Timbers Army likes to chant, “Kalif, Kalif, put your hands up!”. They should be chanting, “Could the real Kalif Alhassan please stand up?”
The Portland Timbers organization obviously understands how talented Alhassan is. If you believe MLSSoccer.com, part of the reason John Spencer was sacked was his verbally abusive behavior towards Alhassan, which apparently shattered the wingers’ confidence.
This tale makes sense – Spencer had quite a temper on him, and Alhassan has been fragile over his MLS career. The Timbers wanted to protect their man. Spencer was out.
Caleb Porter should be a good coach for Alhassan. Dealing with young college kids his whole coaching career, Porter is in a position to understand Alhassan’s temperament. But while Porter and Porterball have drastically improved so many of the Timbers’ this season, Alhassan has gone MIA again.
Usually, players who are as inconsistent as Alhassan don’t last with one club for so long. But Gavin Wilkinson is committed to Alhassan – he signed him and coached him in USL – and Alhassan’s talent is painfully obvious. At his best, Alhassan is one of the most dangerous players in the league. It’s Alhassan’s inability to consistently harness his potential that drives people – John Spencer, for instance – crazy.
There have been whispers throughout Alhassan’s career about his attitude. Spencer didn’t like Alhassan’s defense, but there were also questions about his fitness and commitment. Alhassan seems like a very quiet guy, but behind Futty Danso, he’s the longest-tenured Timber. And he still looks like he’s trying to find his feet.
It’s possible that Alhassan just doesn’t know where he fits in with his teammates. Porter’s offense isn’t suited towards one player taking the ball and dribbling, which is what Alhassan is best at – rather, it calls for short, succinct passing, which eliminates most of Alhassan’s skill.
Maybe giving Alhassan an extended run in the starting lineup, playing him 90 minutes regardless of performance or stamina, and making him find his feet, forcing him to come into games and be a key player would help. It’s worth a shot – a good Alhassan makes the Timbers that much more dangerous offensively.
Still, this plan would call for Alhassan to work his way back up the pecking order and earn a place in the XI, and that’s never been Kalif’s strong-suit. Alhassan seems like a player who has relied on natural talent his whole career, and hasn’t worked particularly hard to expand on his skill.
That skill is sensational, and it has bought him time and opportunity. Let’s hope he uses it, not in fits and starts, but consistently. Alhassan could be a star. Or a wash-out.
Here’s the key question: Is Alhassan satisfied with cameo appearances for the rest of his career? I hope not. Because if he is, his will be a tantalizing case of what-could-have-been.