As we head into March and our first ever regular season MLS match against the Colorado Rapids (March 19th!) it's time we started really analyzing our team so we can best figure out where we need to improve. While it's always difficult to judge a newly promoted team like ours, given the influx of new players, it's become increasingly clear to me that our midfield could possibly be our weakest ink in terms of overall technical skill and experience on the field.
But before I begin I just want to be clear: I'm not judging our players to be bad players, nor am I saying our midfield will fail in the regular season. I don't know that, you don't know that, not even head coach John Spencer knows that. I am just making a critique based on what I can see now and what our FO has failed to accomplish in this off season in regards to our midfield. Also this is entirely subjective. If you know something I don't sound off in the comments!
I think it's safe to say at this point that our mystery midfielder who was supposed to be "best in the league" is a no-show. This was probably our first mistake as a team, but one that wasn't entirely unexpected. We knew from the beginning that negotiations fall through all the time and that this deal was never a certainty. We also don't know who this player was, or why the deal fell through. It could have been that he simply commanded too much of a salary, or that the Timbers didn't see enough value in him to splurge that kind of cash.
What we do know is that we traded another very talented midfielder, Dax McCarty, for Rodney Wallace in the hopes that we would secure this other mystery CM. That move is looking more and more like a bad trade every day. Not to discount Rodney Wallace as I feel pretty confident about his abilities in the back line, but Dax McCarty was fantastic for FC Dallas last season and could have been a player we built the team around in the coming years.
But what's done is done, so let's move on to some players we actually do have.
Peter Lowry and Sal Zizzo
Of all our current midfielders I would say than Peter Lowry and Salvatore "Sal" Zizzo are our safe bets for the team. While only John Spencer knows who will be on the first team come March 19th, Both Lowry and Zizzo are players that, in my opinion, have the most potential as well as the most current MLS experience in our midfield.
Peter Lowry, especially, could be seen as somebody who will lead our midfield in 2011, given his early performances. As an attacking midfielder he plays right into Spencer's hand as being controlling, attacking oriented, and handling the ball fairly well. Just look at this fantastic run up to the box and subsequent goal by Lowry in 2010:
It's easy to see how Lowry could become a solid centerpiece for us in 2011.
Moving on to Sal Zizzo, this is a player that I, personally, have high hopes for making a huge comeback this year. For those that don't know of him, or hadn't heard of him until he signed for the Portland Timbers a couple weeks ago, Sal Zizzo was one of our nation's top prospects in 2007 for the midfield. Reminds me a bit of how Benny Feilhaber was treated this past year.
That kind of skill, speed, and technical skill landed him on Bundesliga team Hannover 96 (Germany's top flight football, considered one of the best leagues in the world).
Unfortunately, injuries and post-injury time limited his playing time at both Hannover 96 and Chivas USA (whom he only made 8 and 10 appearances for respectively). Still, despite this, with his new fund health, I'm confident we'll see him playing on the same level as he was previously when Hannover 96 originally took interest in him.
Our Division 2 Promotees
The wildcards of the bunch, our two D2 promotees, Ryan Pore and Kalif Alhassan, are two players who played very well for us in 2010, but remains to be seen how well they fair in MLS.
We all know and love Ryan Pore. As a midefielder in 2009 and 2010 he lead the Timbers midfield in attack and even scored the most goals on our team for both years running. That kind of skill is important no matter if you're playing in D, MLS, or the English Premiere League. Still there will be a huge difference in the skill level of the average D2 defender and the average MLS defender, especially when going up against solid teams like the Los Angeles, Real Salt Lake, New York Red Bulls and, yes, even the Seattle Sounders. As such, we don't really know how well Ryan Pore will perform against these kind of teams.
However, as an eternal optimist, I'm hopeful that Ryan can leverage his past Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) experience to help him navigate the more difficult path to an MLS net.
Kalif Alhassan is a much larger variable than Ryan Pore. While Pore had two years to make an impression on our team and coaching staff and, luckily, has the experience needed to play at PGE in ront of the Timbers Army and work with all the Timbers coaching staff, Kalif Alhassan does not.
Having only made 6 appearances for us since he joined the team late in the season in 2010, Alhassan certainly impressed, especially given his young age at only 20 years. Still, I'd be remiss if I said I didn't have any reservations. But who knows, he could become a break-out player for us in 2011.
Oh My Darlington... Nagbe
And finally we come to probably our biggest player signing this year, aside from, of course, Kenny Cooper. While the Portland Timbers' official roster lists Darlington Nagbe as either a midfielder or a forward, I'd be willing to bet that Nagbe will maintain a starring role on our midfield. While I don't doubt his striking abilities, it seems to make more sense to use him in our relatively weaker midfield than our powerful striking force we've created with the likes of Kenny Cooper, Eddie Johnson, Bright Dike and possible signings of Jorge Perlaza and Brian Umony.
Of all our midfielders and, in fact, of all our players in general, I'm most excited to see how Nagbe is able to perform this upcoming season. While he's still young, he's shown tremendous promise in both training and his college years (hence why he was our first pick #2 overall).
But let's temper the excitement a little bit. While I'm sure we all have high expectations for Nagbe, given his 19 goals and 19 assists with the University of Akron in 2010, let's not forget that this is still MLS and that was college. The game is faster, more physical, and far more technical than college soccer. Still, I have no doubt that Nagbe will be on that starting 11 come March 19th, the question remains just what position he will actually field.
And The Rest
There are still some other midfielders here that I've neglected to give a shining spotlight on. Jeremy Hall immediately jumps to mind. He played as a right-back defender for the New York Red Bulls last season and in 2009 but go little playing time. In his move to Portland he requested to play in the midfield as he used to in college. It will be interesting to see how well he performs in his new role.
Freddie Braun is another player who I, personally, know very little about. Coming from our undefeated Portland Timbers U-23 PDL team our own Ryan Gates recently compiled a nice helpful breakdown of who he is and why he is important to the team.
James Marcelin is another D2 promotee that I neglected to mention above. Coming from Haiti and playing most of his professional soccer for the Puerto Rico Islanders, I'm hesitant about claiming he will be a strong starter for our first team in 2011. While he played very well for us in 2010, he has little MLS experience and will be 25 this year. Not old, certainly, but old enough that you start wondering if there's much more room for improvement.
And finally, we have Adam Moffat, the big Scotsman who played the last four years with the Columbus Crew. While certainly Columbus has had an exceedingly deep squad the past few years, it worries me that in four years Moffat was only able to secure 44 appearances in that time. As such he's become one of my big "question marks" on the field for the Timbers. Was he merely neglected at Columbus because their squad was so deep, or were there other reasons?
Looking back on the overall analysis, I'd say that while I agree that our midfield is the weakest link and that we certainly have bungled a couple transfer moves I'm really not all that worried. We continue to be a young, fiery team with a huge emphasis on attacking rather than defending or controlling. It will be interesting to see how the midfield forms in the coming weeks and months as Spencer is able to truly judge who is deserving of the first team role.
Any guesses on who will be our 3 or 4 starting midfielder come March 19th?