After getting oriented on Friday and working on speed-of-play Saturday, the Timbers turned up the defensive pressure in Sunday’s training at Providence Park.
The Portland Timbers opened training with a progressive set of two-man passing drills. What started out as one-touch passing between two players five yards apart quickly escalated, with Porter adding distance, dribbling, and defensive elements every few minutes. This is a common theme in Porter’s practices - the team will often start with a relatively simple drill before the coaches progressively add wrinkles. By the end of this session, the players were passing the ball 15-20 yards apart, before the whistle blew and the player out of possession had to close down the player with the ball.
After the two-man passing drills, the Timbers broke into 4 v 2 games. Initially starting with relatively simple small-box 4 v 2 focusing on short, one-touch passes, the game eventually broke into much larger box-to-box games in which the team in possession had to string five passes together before switching the ball to the team in the opposite box on their side of the field. If the team in possession was successful, they stayed on offense and waited to receive the ball once more. But if the defensive team broke up the passing sequence, the team formerly in possession was relegated to defense and had the challenge of recovering to the other side of the field to try to break up the next team’s sequence.
Finally, the Timbers split into two groups for short-sided games. The youngsters and reserves, joined by Danny O’Rourke and Michael Nanchoff, occupied the near side of the field with Jake Gleeson and Justin Luthy tending goal. The regulars were split into two teams on the far side, with Jeanderson and Dairon Asprilla playing with the regulars - where they’ve been consistently throughout camp. With the focus on defensive pressure, there wasn’t nearly as much scoring as in yesterday’s short-sided matches, but the intensity was definitely turned up a notch, with Rodney Wallace in particular getting stuck in on a couple tackles.
Injuries and Absences
Will Johnson and Diego Valeri were again working on the north end of the field when practice opened, before retiring to the locker room. Johnson soon returned to the field, however, to observe the short-sided match featuring the regulars.
After practice Porter noted the importance of keeping Valeri and Johnson connected to the team even though they’re still working through their respective injuries on an individual basis:
It helps them mentally. It helps from our standpoint because it keeps them closer to it and they see what we’re working on so they can get a sense of kind of what they’re missing. Because you can learn without actually being in the session; you can kind of see the emphasis and the things that are being stressed.
Otherwise, no new news to report on the injury or absence front.
Among the newcomers, Porter drew a line of distinction between the new professionals and the players who were simply new to MLS. Porter noted the learning curve takes a little bit longer for new professionals to adjust to the league, but pointed to Nick Besler as having a little bit of a leg up in that process:
Besler is probably a little ahead of some of the others because he’s got some soccer in him. Little bit cleaner on the ball, a bit smarter in how he sees things, so I think he’ll be a guy that’s probably slightly ahead of a few of the others. The others have had their flashes - whether or not they can put it all together will depend on the day-to-day and how quickly they can transition.
Asked in a followup, Porter endorsed the idea of lengthening the college soccer season:
I think it’s the games. You know, ultimately you need more games. I was in college, so I know how it works. And in the spring we trained a lot, but we’re not playing games. So you need that game experience and you need that feeling of a longer season where you have games that matter. That spring, even though you’re training every day, you slip. Players slip. Their habits slip. They slip because they’re not getting games. So I think lengthening the season would help - definitely - but I’m not sure it’s going to happen.
Porter went on to wonder about the effect the short season would have on college players coming into MLS:
I think as the years go on, I think it becomes tougher and tougher because the league becomes more and more saturated. And as every team builds their rosters deeper and deeper, now it becomes more and more difficult for players out of college to step in. If they’re stepping in, they’re usually stepping in on teams that are weak. If you look at some of the players that did well last year, they did well on weaker teams. So I think that’s a bit deceiving. Everybody says ‘Oh, he was a great draft pick.' Well, if he went to another team, maybe he’s not because he’s not playing.
Asked about the transition between Donovan Ricketts and Adam Kwarasey, Porter heaped praise on Ricketts:
I think we liked Ricketts. He did well for us. But he started to reach that stage in his career where he was not able to train, and when you can’t train as much you’re not going to be quite as sharp. That’s nothing against him - it’s just he’s 37 years old. And ultimately we felt it was in our best interest to get a goalkeeper that could be here for the next four or five years.
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But Ricketts is one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached. He knows that - I’ve told him that - and he’s probably got another couple years in him and he’ll do well with Orlando.
In addition to Kwarasey’s relative youth, Porter discussed the Ghanaian’s fit within the Timbers’ system:
His ability to fit into our system, I think that’s another factor. Every player has their strengths [and] weaknesses, every goalkeeper has a different style. Adam is very much a guy that can manage a high line. He’s very much a guy that you can play through. He’s got really good feet. And then he has a lot of the same characteristics that Donovan has, as well. So he’s similar, but a little bit different. We’re hoping he’s as good and maybe a both different - I won’t say better - but a notch different in the way he plays so that it fits into our team, the way we play to help maximize the way we want to play.
With respect to his team setup, Porter acknowledged that while there are a few players they’re still evaluating to see how they’ll fit in, the group has been consistent enough that he has a pretty clear picture of how to set up his team:
I think at this stage in year three and with the roster we have, we’re not going to need to get a ton of information out of the training because I think we pretty much know where we’re at. We have a couple players we’re still not sure if they’re going to be guys that will start or will come off the bench. A guy like Asprilla I would put in that position - that’s one example there. But other than that, I think it’s pretty clear so we’re not getting a ton of information out of trainings other than we’re trying to make sure that we’re sharp.
Porter touched multiple times on the notion that the Timbers are trying to build back to their late-2014 form:
It’s really just trying to connect the end of the year back into now, the beginning of the year. And if we can get in the form we were in at the end of the year at the start of this year - I’m talking about every aspect of that form - then we’re going to win games at the start of the year. Plain and simple.
This is consistent with the general feeling around lineup selection, where Porter has indicated we’re unlikely to see major changes with the exception of the couple spots the Timbers looked to change this offseason. After briefly noting a couple possibilities with Nagbe and Asprilla, Porter insisted:
Other than that there’s going to be no mystery and surprises and, all of a sudden, twists that are going to throw people off. Just like when you go into a season and you see Salt Lake the last several years - they’re a bit different now - or L.A., you pretty much know who they’re going to play; there’s not a lot of surprises. And why would there be? Because they have a good team. Ultimately we fell short, but at the end of the year we hit the mark. We hit the mark with our performances and our results at the end of the year. And we’re going to build on that and it’s going to look very similar.
Finally, Porter wasn’t concerned about filling the leadership void with Johnson out:
I think that just happens. Obviously we’ve added a couple leaders in Nat Borchers and Adam [Kwarasey]. Adam was a captain of his team. Nat’s been a leader on that team. Even though you have an appointed captain, we’ve aways been a team of leaders and our leadership comes through the collective group, it’s not one guy that’s ever been leading this team. Will wears the armband and he wears it for good reason - because he’s a leader and he’s a strong presence on and off the field, and he’s an experienced player and he’s a guy that leads by example and gets the job done. But Will Johnson hasn’t been the only leader on this team.