As fellow Stumptown Footy Editor Will Conwell reported earlier this week, the 2012 Timbers U23 USL Premier Development League (PDL) season begins tomorrow. They play host to the British Columbia-based Abbotsford Magnuson Ford Mariners at 7pm.
Then on Tuesday at 7:30 the U23s' start their US Open Cup run against PSA Elite, a California-based US Adult Soccer Association club.
Both matches will take place at Jeld Wen Field. Tickets for Friday's match are $5; Tuesday's tickets are $7 (they'll be showing the Dynamo-Timbers game on the big screen prior to the U23 match).
Jim Rilatt, Head Coach of the U23s since it was founded in 2008, is pretty excited.
"It is fun to have what probably becomes our last go around," Rilatt said, referring to some of the players who have been on the team for a few years, particularly Roberto Farfan and Steven Evans. "I've coached them from the time they were little, in different environments, so it is really nice to see it, and I look forward to it."
The Timbers U23 program plays an important role in the overall Timbers organization. Put simply, it prepares "kids," a term Rilatt uses liberally, to be professionals. The training atmosphere, the competition, and the expectations are all completely different from the youth and college environments the players have come from.
"What we try to do is mimic as much of the first team as we can," says Rilatt. "PDL is difficult. It is a grind, so you find out some of the things, the habits, and personalities of people."
Though the U23s are an integral part of the Timbers overall organization, it isn't quite a farm team, or a reserve team, or even a development team. Unlike youth clubs like the EastSide Timbers, participating on the U23 team does not endow a player with "home grown" status. There is no direct mechanism for U23 players to be promoted to the first team.
But even though the U23 players still must jump through some hoops to get to MLS, the program helps build those important relationships between players and senior club coaches, which can open up opportunities down the road. Case in point, two players off the U23 side, Jake Gleeson and Freddie Braun, joined the senior team last year, and they added Brent Richards and Ryan Kawulok this year.
"[Gleeson, Braun, Kawulok, and Richards] proved that they are quality human beings as well as good soccer players," says Rilatt. "That's what we know from having them under the microscope."
Michigan native Freddie Braun made a beeline for the Timbers U23s after he finished school at Louisville, even delaying his professional career to get a shot with the PDL team.
"I was looking forward to making the MLS team," says Braun. "I had some offers [to play professionally in the USL], but I thought this was the best shot to be seen by the technical director and coaches."
"And here I am. You come in, you play well, and you have a shot at the first team."
Rilatt says many more young players are looking to follow Braun's path. "By the organization's promotion of players, we're seeing kids from Creighton or kids from Memphis - there's a kid coming in from Georgetown - wanting to come to Portland because there is a definite route into the first team - if they perform."
If they perform - Rilatt stressed that point to Will at the training session on Tuesday. For all the talent the Timbers are attracting right now, those players have a tough act to follow.
Gleeson, Braun, Richards, and Kawulok were all standouts on a squad that won every match it played in 2010. All four of them earned spots on the All-Conference Team for the PDL Western Conference, and Brent Richards was awarded both MVP and Rookie of the Year awards that year.
"It was exciting - it was a lot of fun," says Braun. "The team chemistry that we had, you get in the habit of winning. All it is is creating those habits every day."
"That just sets the standard for any one of these guys," Coach Rilatt says of the current roster. "Because now somebody needs to step in and take Ryan Kawulok's spot this year, and somebody needs to step in and take Brent Richards' spot this year."
"Hopefully we have four more in this year's group. That would be awesome."
And so it begins again, tomorrow at Jeld Wen Field. Says Rilatt, "What better place to try out?"