Having turned her attention to the USL Orange County Blues Alicia Ratterree of The Goat Parade reached out to us and we exchanged questions and answers ahead of the next Timbers 2 match. Always welcome here at Stumptown, Alicia gives us some answers to learn a bit more about our upcoming opponents.
STF: Midfielder Didier Crettenand was crucial in the 2-1 win over Sacramento Republic. Could you tell us more about him and do you think he will be as influential in the match against T2?
AR: Crettenand is a newcomer to the Blues and American soccer overall this year, as he previously played all of his professional soccer in his native Switzerland. A box-to-box midfielder, he's not only been strong on the defensive side of the ball, but he's been practically dominant offensively, hitting two game-winners and three assists in four games this season.
To my eyes, he's been the best player by some distance for the Blues this year. He's not young, at 29, but his experience, leadership, and skill have flourished so far, and helped Orange County get off to a strong 3-1-0 start. It may sound strong, but if he continues to play this well, I think he'll be a candidate for USL MVP this season.
STF: Before facing T2 at Providence Park on Sunday evening, OC Blues has the pleasure to face Sounders 2 at Starfire on Fridaynight. Do you think the ridiculously short turn around between games will be a major factor in the performance of OC Blues come Sunday?
AR: Only time will tell, of course, but it seems like it ought to make an impact of some sort. I assume Blues coach Oliver Wyss will have to turn to his squad in giving some players not used against Sounders 2 a chance against T2, and given the strength of both of the Cascadia USL teams so far this season, each game is going to be a challenge.
Add to that, every road game is a challenge, and having two in three days is a special kind of test. I'd imagine if the Blues can grab even two points, that would be a measured success, though obviously they'll be looking for at least one win on the trip. But having these compact turnarounds are part of USL, and if the Blues want to continue to show they're for real in the league this season, they'll have to put up with the circumstances and seek some points.
STF: For our readers who might not be too familiar with OC Blues, could you tell us a little bit about them, what we should expect to see on Sunday, and perhaps one key player that we should be on the look out for?
AR: The Blues have been in USL since 2011, originally as the LA Blues before they went through a rebrand and became the Orange County Blues in 2014, moving to Irvine to play at the interestingly named Anteater Stadium. They've had ups and downs over the years, and last year had a tough season marked by major roster turnover and poor results, and finished second-last in the standings. The organization also ran a successful W-League team, the Pali Blues (later renamed the LA Blues), that won consecutive league championships the past two years before being disbanded this past winter.
Despite dropping the women's team, which was kind of a bummer, the organization appeared committed to turning around the ship for the men's team, and early returns are positive. They've hired Wyss as head coach, a longtime youth coach in Southern California who has shown well so far, and recruited several players from abroad who have made an instant positive impact on the team, from the aforementioned Crettenand to attackers Christofer Ramirez and Junior Burgos (both from El Salvador) and Denzel Slager (Dutch), midfielder Luka Petricevic (Montenegro), who will almost certainly start against T2 after serving a suspension on Friday, as well as physical defender Romeo Filipovic (Croatian-German). These additions have all played well in the early days and helped supplement the handful of returning players from last year's squad.
Thus far this season, OC have liked to control the ball yet still had a fair amount of attacking intent, and have defended very well. They aren't nicking results, and seem to be playing a little better each game, as their chemistry improves. Who knows what the rest of the season holds, but it's a good start, and the club overall seems to be moving in the right direction to become a success in USL and in the local market.
Thank you Alicia for the answers! And here are my answers to her questions:
AR: Timbers 2 are obviously a reserve team of the MLS side, but they've been one of the best new MLS-owned teams so far in their first season. I imagine the primary objective is to support the first team, of course, but are T2 truly aiming to win titles in their own right?
STF: Head coach Jay Vidovich has stated that the primary function of this team is development of players. Now you can obviously develop players while aiming to win something, but preparing the loanees and some of the young T2 signings for possibly making the jump to the first team is the number one priority. A lot of these USL reserve teams for MLS clubs are there to bridge that gap from their academy to the first team and T2 isn't going to be any different in that regard.
**Personal note: At the time I answered this I did not know who the Timbers were going to loan to T2. Even though they are loaning five additional first team players down to T2 for this match I feel it is more a matter of convenience to see first team guys get some much needed minutes than it is to try to snag a win or prevent current T2 guys from developing or gaining more team chemistry/cohesion.
AR: Forward Kharlton Belmar has five goals in six games and is coming off a USL Player of the Week award. Tell us a little about his game, and do you think he'll be capable of making the jump up to MLS any time soon?
STF: Belmar is a special treat to watch. He is a center striker with speed and athleticism in spades. When fully rested he seems capable of high pressuring the backline into mistakes for a full 90 minutes. He is able to attempt to toe poke the ball away from defenders who try to dribble out of his pressure, and his speed allows him to chase down any ball sent forward. No ball is a lost cause.
Now, whether any of this translates to MLS is the big question right now, even as early as the season is given the first team Timbers' current form of their striker corps. A lot of people want to see Belmar moved up to the first team immediately or at least sometime this season. But one potentially large problem is that, right now, he is a signed T2 player not someone on loan from the first team. And we don't really know what mechanisms exist within the murky MLS rules to loan a player up from USL to MLS. Obviously if the Timbers want it to happen, they'll find a way. Just based on the fact that they drafted him should mean that they retain his rights to sign him to an MLS contract for at least one year. But mechanisms for a loan/transfer or move of any type aside, the other reason I don't see him going to MLS this season is that it has only been six games. And he impresses against slower and less sharp USL defenses. His speed won't get him as far against MLS defenses where their center backs are smarter and better positioned to deal with the threat. So the intention has to be to keep him with T2 and bring along his development as a complete striker in the lone striker role as much as possible. Take his raw talent and build upon/develop his soccer IQ and eye for the game. And if he keeps up his form across an entire season then it would be silly of the Timbers not to bring him up to the first team (and at that point loan him back down to T2 if needed).
AR: Two players on the Timbers 2 roster who may be of interest to readers of this site are Schillo Tshuma (briefly on loan with the Blues last season) and Blair Gavin (played for Chivas USA 2010-12). How are these guys doing this season?
STF: Blair Gavin captains T2 when he plays (which I believe has been every single game except the last one) and his experience provides solid leadership to the young guys as well as the primary set piece taker. He has been consistent in midfield each time he steps on the pitch.
I saw Schillo in Arizona preseason right after we drafted him and I was excited at his prospect. Then he basically disappeared and we hardly saw or heard from him. Loaned to OC Blues and Arizona United for a bit we really didn't hear anything about him. Thankfully that changes this season with T2. Not only for him but for all of our young players. I'm not sure how he did last season on his loans, but Tshuma has impressed on the wing so far this season. Placed opposite of Rundell Winchester they both have done well to link with Belmar and create a very speedy top attacking three in matches.
AR: (Bonus) Prediction for Sunday's game?
STF: It has been said that the Timbers will loan a number of players down to T2 for the match (probably helps that it will be at Providence Park and it's a home match the day after a first team home match). So the potential to see anyone who doesn't play against Vancouver probably increases the chances T2 wins. Will Johnson and Jeanderson seem likely, with anyone from George Fochive, Rodney Wallace, Ishmael Yartey, etc possibly playing if they don't see minutes Saturday night.
Add to that, the super short turnaround for OC and this match screams either ‘trap game' or ‘T2 domination'. So T2 wins. And I'll say 3-1 scoreline with our Kharlton Belmar snagging the hat trick.