As of 10:00am Monday morning, the Portland Timbers have returned to a full schedule of training camp. This time last year the team was working mostly on fitness with Jabulani balls rarely used at the adidas North America campus. Fast forward twelve months and the Timbers were playing 9v9 games with three rotating teams on the third day of training camp. The differences are striking with just one year between almost universal introductions to a resumption of the kind of work outs featured in November. Certainly there have been roster moves that change the particulars of which players are on the field, but the majority of the significant players from 2011 return and it is now a matter of working in new recruits rather than trying to establish an identity.
While only one regular starter is permanently gone (Kenny Cooper) from the end of last season, it does seem that John Spencer has opened competition for several positions. Though he has not clarified which, the forward line is filled with question marks and specifically which of the plethora of defenders will take the field on March 12 is definitely not yet determined. Likewise, several players seem not to know where on the field they will feature in 2012.
The most interesting positional battle will be at forward, in light of Cooper’s departure. Both Bright Dike and Eddie Johnson have lost weight, are in terrific shape and are both adamant that this is their chance to really break out. Dike is fully recovered from his achilles injury and has overhauled his diet, work ethic and preparation in anticipation of this season. He was not necessarily the most impressive player in the first training games of this camp but his desire is clear and his fitness is unquestioned. Johnson, by far the sharper of the two yesterday, has also recovered from 2011 injuries. Like Dike, he injured his achilles early in the season, not as badly but enough to significantly disrupt his preparation for the 2011 season. When he finally returned, two concussions cast Johnson to the sideline for the rest of the year, only fully returning to training in November, after the season. After spending the offseason in England, Johnson looks fitter and more comfortable than he did at any point last year. He was highly active in the training games and seemed as big a threat in front of goal as anyone.
Another possible forward option, though he does seem likely destined for the Reserves, is Brent Richards. The Timbers’ first Home Grown Player was very effective in a forward role in training games, though it remains unknown if Spencer will ultimately use him in that position or try him on the wing. It was clear in just an hour’s time, that the youngster from Camas has a keen awareness around the goalmouth, whether shooting or passing. He either scored or assisted on a number of goals on the small field, and while not a dominant player by any means, did seem to slip past defenders on a regular basis.
All of this conversation assumes José Valencia will not feature as a starter, at least early in the season. His conspicuous absence yesterday, combined with Merritt Paulson‘s cryptic tweet, has led many fans to question whether Trencito is injured or otherwise unavailable. At this time, no further light has been shed on that situation, but assuming his is indeed still healthy, Valencia is still unlikely to feature in the starting XI on March 12. The opportunity for Dike, Johnson or others (not to mention the preference of many – Darlington Nagbe in a forward role) comes in this training camp to establish themselves as viable starters. Johnson was in fine form when the concussions ended his season in 2011 – Dike never got a chance to start but had an impact as a substitute later in the season.
Defensively, it seems many have rushed to the conclusion that Hányer Mosquera will replace Futty Danso as a starting center back. No indication has yet been given but it does appear that Mosco, Futty and Eric Brunner will all be considered for a starting role. Mosquera looked perhaps a half-step behind in yesterday’s training games, though that can easily be attributable to it being his first exposure to his teammates in a ‘game-like situation.’ Andrew Jean-Baptiste looked winded and a bit unsure of himself at times in the training games and his status as a Reserve team starter seems more likely than part of the eighteen on March 12. But AJB does possess a physicality matched only by Mosquera. Spencer, Paulson and Gavin Wilkinson have all openly stated their desire for a tougher team in 2012. That could, in the longer term, lean in the favor of the two newest defenders.
A final note is necessary regarding outside backs. The return of Rodney Wallace, Mike Chabala, Chris Taylor, Lovel Palmer and Steve Purdy suggests that the Timbers feel comfortable with their options at the left and right back positions. Yet rumors persist that young Juan David Duque will be signed very soon from Atlético Nacional in Colombia. The 20-year old left back would be a fascinating addition to an area of the field so far overlooked in terms of roster changes from 2011 to 2012.
Quite obviously, three days (and only one of competitive competition of any kind) is not enough to make any judgments. The upcoming trip to California, and the four pre-season games played there, will have a lot to say about who emerges as a candidate for the starting XI on March 12. Just a reminder, the following players debuted on March 19, 2011 for Portland: Peter Lowry, Kevin Goldthwaite, Jeremy Hall, Adin Brown and Ryan Pore. Opening day starter does not guarantee a place in the team forever. But at this point in the pre-season, it is the ultimate aim for every player.