The other night I was out at a party and I found myself talking about the current Portland Timbers, as is what usually happens at social events these days. What I found though was a lot of anger and general confusion about what the current Timbers team is doing, why they're doing it, and where the team was heading in the future. One of the people I was talking to was so angry (in a polite way) that he believed no player should ever be traded... ever. That it would be better to just bond with a team -- through wins and losses -- than trade away any player, let alone fan favorites.
This entire conversation with normal, every day Timbers fans got me thinking about the what exactly is happening with our favorite soccer team and what it looks like from that perspective. I'm a huge fan of the team, no doubt about it, but I'm also a member of the media and, as such, I'm forced to take a step back and look at everything from all angles. In a sense, I don't really have the luxury of being angry at the team for trading a player. And while this has it's positives and negatives, one big positive is that I have to be an eternal optimist about the team.
So, with that said, I would like to offer my long term perspective on the current Portland Timbers team, as an independent media source, but also as an optimistic fan. I'll also be comparing the team to another slow starter: Real Salt Lake.
Before I regale you with my ideas on the future, though, I think its important to take a look at the past a bit, at least as far back as the beginning of the 2011 season.
The fact is, the Portland Timbers have never been a truly solid team. As optimistic as I am, there's always been a glaring hole in the current Timbers squad that's left the team crippled on the field in one way or another. The simple truth of the matter is that the Timbers struggle in almost every game they play for a reason.
This might be a little shocking because, as we all know, the Timbers had a respectable first season. One that most believed would carry them to new heights this season. The reality, however, is that the Timbers were riding a wave of energy that simply couldn't be matched this season. All the fans, the media, the Timbers Army, etc all formed a rush that gave an otherwise imperfect team a number of solid victories.
The reason I bring this up is because many fans, particularly casual fans, are somewhat dismayed by the fact that the Timbers didn't get better. The truth is, they weren't as good as they seemed in the first place.
This shouldn't come off as a surprise though, look at the current Real Salt Lake team and squad. For the past few seasons they've been regular MLS Cup and Supporters Shield contenders. They even made it to the CONCACAF Champions League final. That's an impressive feat for an MLS team. But look back at their first three seasons. One word can be used to describe them: inconsistent.
I bring them up as a comparison because they're a prime example of how a new MLS team can turn things around and go from being an inconsistent, middling club to a powerhouse within the league in only a few short seasons. The Timbers got off to a great start last year, but they were still inconsistent. And that's the major hurdle in building a successful MLS team.
Which leads me to today, or rather the very recent past. In the last week we saw fan favorites Troy Perkins and Mike Chabala get traded away. Most were angry in some fashion about Troy Perkins, and I was too. A little bit. It was mostly shock, but it's always tough to lose a player that you feel has had a true connection with the city. If Sal Zizzo ever gets traded away I'll probably be in tears!
But what's happened in the last week is integral for the long term success of the team. I know, it's that annoying media optimism side of me again. It's true though. As much as I enjoyed Perkins, I can absolutely understand why they would trade him away and it has nothing to do with whether Donovan Ricketts is an "upgrade" or not. I'll refrain from comparing the two directly based on skill level.
What I will say though is that, if what I've been told by plenty of sources is true, then Ricketts will absolutely be better for the future of the Timbers. Especially in helping to mentor young Jake Gleeson who, if memory serves me right, is somebody fans wanted to take over the starting position last year ahead of Perkins early on in the season.
The fact is, if you've read what I've written above, then you should know that the Timbers need to build for the future and building that future comes with sacrifice. Some players, fan favorites or not, simply won't fit into that future. Troy Perkins was an unfortunate loss, but from a long term perspective, a necessary one. After all, aren't we aspiring to be that consistent rock that Real Salt Lake is today? Could Perkins have really helped secure that future if he wasn't interested in mentoring his eventual replacement?
Finally, we arrive at the future. What I've been building up to this entire time. But allow me to preface this by saying that I'm not clairvoyant. This is, once again, just my media optimism projecting what I see as a possible outcome of the Timbers. Something I fully believe can and will happen, but still entirely unpredictable.
Believe it or not, there is a plan for this team. I know there is a general air of animosity from the fans towards the FO about where the team is heading, and in particular about one of the men leading the team's future. But this is not a team like the New England Revolution. The Portland Timbers aren't playing second fiddle to any other money making cashcow. Yes, it's hard to come to grips with the long term plan that the team has set out, but it's absolutely there.
The reality of the situation is that the Portland Timbers probably won't be a Suppoters Shield, U.S. Open Cup, MLS Cup, or CCL contender for a least a couple seasons. John Spencer, who I still like actually, came in last year and instilled a certain mentality on the team. It was a hardworking, but not overly tactical one. Unfortunately, the Timbers need a tactical mind and with that comes a new coach who will certainly be cleaning house this off season. I wouldn't be surprised to see at least a third of the current squad traded away or released altogether, depending on the coach.
This kind of sweeping change, however, doesn't happen overnight and the new coach and team will need time -- probably an entire season's worth -- to effectively gel with each other. But if they get it right (and that's a big IF) then the end result is a consistent team from season four onward. If you look at Real Salt Lakes history, it looks remarkably similar to the way the Portland Timbers look now, albeit with the first and second seasons switched. Still, they weren't consistent until season four, and to expect anything more of the current Timbers would be incredibly unfair.
The future is bright guys. I know it doesn't look like it right now, but a new foundation needs to be placed before a solid structure can be built on top of it. That foundation has never truly been there. With some time, a bit of work, and a whole lot of cleaning, though, the Timbers could easily make it to the upper echelons of the league and become a team that is not powered by stars, but rather a solid group of hard working players, held up by a tactically minded coaching staff.
That's the dream, and that's my long term perspective for the team today.