The Timbers added Rennico Clarke, Victor Arboleda, and Kendall McIntosh from T2. This we all know. But what should we expect from these players in 2017?
We can start with the player, of the three, who is most likely the closest to being MLS ready: Rennico Clarke. That is not to say he IS ready, but I feel strongly that he is the closest one to being there of the three.
When he first arrived for T2 back in 2015, he was showing well enough that there was already discussion back then that Porter liked what he saw and he might get signed to the first team for the 2016 season. Unfortunately, an injury towards the later half of the season derailed that possibility. But once Clarke got healthy and back on the field for T2 in the second half of the 2016 season, he went right back to where he left off, impressing on the field at the USL level.
His strength is his calmness on the ball under pressure. At least at the USL level, he very often shows an ability to be calm on the ball under pressure and pass out of danger. He does well to distribute and work the ball out of the back helping T2 begin some attacking possession. I would say he is about average on reading threats and being positionally aware of his surroundings. More often than not he is in the right place at the right time. Part of that is a good reading of the situations that come at him and part of it is his athleticism that allows him to get into position if he is caught out.
So all of that allows him to do very well at the USL level. But the speed of the game is much faster, more intense at the MLS level. So if he is going to be ready for MLS he will need to develop more of his mental game. Physically I think he can go up with most of the attacks MLS has. But mentally he will need to increase the speed at which he can read the game, and improve his awareness of his surroundings and oncoming threats. And the best way for that to happen will be to get some MLS minutes. Play at that level to learn, grow, and adapt to that level of play. And a big part of that development is whether or not a player can grasp what is needed and get there. Rennico Clarke absolutely has the potential and skills to be a great MLS centerback, no doubt about that. That leaves it down to one thing, real minutes.
Caleb Porter has said this offseason that he intends to give all the young players every chance to earn minutes, develop, and succeed. And they really want to have lots of competition at each and every spot on the roster. So if they stick with 4 CBs on the roster going into 2017, Clarke will absolutely have the chance to get some minutes. Given Clarke’s play with T2 at the USL level, and his chance to get some MLS minutes, I’d say he has a very good chance to become a strong contributor to the team.
Up next, our speedy right winger, Victor Arboleda. He has speed, speed, more speed, and speed still left to burn. But he isn’t entirely a one trick pony. In addition to the speed, he can actually play the ball. He can dribble with speed and has an ability to take on defenders 1v1. So he has the basics down pat for a good winger. And in 2016 with T2 when he was healthy he could be very goal dangerous, particularly in his ability to get behind the back line. But how could this translate to MLS in 2017?
I would say, Arboleda certainly developed a more well rounded winger repertoire towards the end of 2016. Neco Brett was his direct competition, a player who had earned himself a first team contract in the 2016 offseason. Brett was crucial for T2 doing as well as they did and could be counted on to provide a spark. He scored, not one, but TWO second half stoppage time, game winning goals. But it was Arboleda who had more speed and a slightly better ability to keep that speed while controlling the ball. In addition to this, Arboleda was beginning to develop more defensive abilities that Porter likes to see in his wingers. All of this really came together and Arboleda was able to basically take Brett’s spot on the first team roster.
So the expectations should be lower here than Clarke, but higher than those of Neco Brett last season. He still needs to develop more substance in his play to be MLS ready. What I mean by that is, he has the tools, he has the basics. Now he just needs to grow them into his game to break out of the USL level of play and into MLS. So will we see Arboleda get minutes in 2017? Less likely for sure. If the team can make a deep run in the US Open Cup he is certain to get some time there. But if the team is focused on finding a DP winger on the right side, and if Asprilla comes back, then Arboleda will find himself 3rd deep in his primary position. It will be good to train with the first team, fight and compete for what little minutes he might be able to get, but I’d expect him to get more time on loan down to T2. His key will be to stay healthy and make the most of every minute he is given in both the first team and T2. If he wants to succeed at the MLS level in 2018 and beyond then he needs to prove that USL is beneath him and tear it up for T2. And help the first team make a good run in the US Open Cup.
Lastly, but certainly not least, we have Kendall McIntosh. Another player who essentially did better than his counterpart who had a first team contract. And thus replaces him on the first team roster. At the 3rd spot in the goal keeping chart there will be no expectations that he sees any real first team minutes. He could see a US Open Cup start against lower opposition for sure. But his season will be starting in goal for T2.
Back in August of 2016 I ran a lot of numbers between Wade Hamilton and Kendall McIntosh. And McIntosh was above and beyond the better keeper of the two. So I predicted Hamilton would be cut and McIntosh would take his place. And sure enough, that all came true. So it is hardly any surprise McIntosh earned the 3rd keeper spot. But again, as #3, he will spend all his time starting for T2 and continuing to develop on the second team.
T2 in 2017
What else can we expect from T2 and USL in 2017? Given past experience the season should begin at the end of March. Likely the final weekend in March is when the season should start. And with the start of the season being two months away, don’t expect any real T2 specific news for at least another few weeks. Given that the first team and the Thorns take priority most of the front office are busy preparing those two teams for the 2017 season.
That doesn’t mean T2 will be neglected. Far from it. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if T2’s roster gains more academy players and sticks with a good number of first team loanees. So outside of a couple of youth international signings, they probably have most of the team’s main 18 set. Especially if the unsigned draft picks get signed to T2. And you can certainly hedge a safe bet that defender Michael Amick, forward Russell Cicerone, and defensive midfielder Romilio Hernandez are likely to earn T2 contracts and given 2017 to prove themselves. And with more important players sticking around with T2 such as Dylan Damraoui, Augustine Williams, and Villyan Bijev they will be keeping a good core of players together which will hopefully help a lot of the chemistry built at the end of 2016 to stick around.
Both in 2015 and 2016 T2 had to sign about a half dozen players who never saw a single minute. Roster fill essentially. One would hope there is less of that this season but there could still be a few players they sign at the last minute just to fill out some roster spots. They are keeper-less but with the expectation that McIntosh will start every game he possibly can, that is far from a red flag. A 4th, and maybe 5th keeper, will likely get signed eventually. So we will definitely see player signings in the weeks to come. But nothing likely to get too excited over.
For those excited about Clarke, Arboleda, and even the first round draft pick Jeremy Ebobisse, offseason training camp should go a long way to showing where those players stand heading into 2017. And I will be in Arizona for the first week of pre-season, bringing you the games vs NYRB and NK Istra 1961, as well as the USMNT friendly vs Serbia over in San Diego. I’ll also be at a training session or two down there to see how our players are getting along. So look for those updates and news stories next week. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter as any Nagbe related USMNT news will come from my personal account while I’m in San Diego.