Pay To Play Going Nowhere Fast

The Oregonian’s Steve Duin recently wrote an article about the evolution over the past few years in youth soccer, primarily how the Portland Timbers and their parent company, Peregrine Sports, LLC is now in the driver’s seat for youth development in Oregon and SW Washington, for good or ill.

I hope the article spurs some transparency from Peregrine on how the player fees are used, and what plans the Timbers have for making competitive youth soccer more affordable.

My brother and I grew up playing competitive soccer and ODP (Olympic Development Program), and while it certainly wasn’t cheap for my parents (who also spent countless hours driving us all over the Portland metro area and throughout the Western United States to attend training and tournaments), the costs today are now a massive step up for kids to move from the recreational to club level.

I’m not talking double the cost, I’m talking a 7X increase to play for a Timbers Alliance club ($200/year for rec versus $1400/year for competitive), and that is just the opening ante for club fees before tournament fees, travel costs and coaches per diems are added on top.

I have been a volunteer coach for my two sons for the past 6 years and I love it, but I would also like for them to have the opportunity to learn from more advanced coaches that can help them learn and grow as players.

Both my boys made the cut at club team tryouts last year, but we postponed moving up for a year to try and save the money necessary to participate, but likely will need to wait another year before it’s economically feasible.

The clubs do offer financial aid, but it is limited to only those below the poverty line, which is due to the limited funds available to the clubs. For many in positions similar to mine this means I make too much too qualify for aid, but I also don’t have a money tree to pluck the additional thousands of dollars necessary to participate at the competitive level.

The clubs also offer fundraising opportunities, but the funds earned for time volunteering to man concession stands for Peregrine means taking on a second job would be a better use of parents time to come up with the extra money.

For this full time working single parent and volunteer coach (with numerous other school/community fundraising/volunteer commitments), time is a commodity in small supply.

For any sport to assume that parents with limited income must then possess unlimited time to volunteer is as delusional as the parents who staunchly believe their children will beat the odds to become professional soccer players someday.

This is not a woe is me rant, rather it is a commentary that despite the talk that the Timbers want to move away from the American ‘pay to play’ model, they are only entrenching it further.

As Duin notes, surely much of the player fees go to paying for fields, coaches, and referees, and it’s well known that the Timbers are re-investing in the community by partnering with Portland Parks and Recreation to upgrade soccer facilities at Delta Park and adding the futsal courts at Montavilla Park, among various other projects.

The thing is, the Timbers Army and the related Operation Pitch Invasion also upgrade fields in the area, but as a means to make the sport more accessible to the community, whereas the Delta Park renovations will lend more exclusivity of the use of those fields to clubs associated with the Timbers.

Just as the Timbers built their own training facility in Beaverton and plan to expand, the Timbers Alliance clubs are making their own efforts to build their own regional facilities, mostly through fundraising efforts and private land donations. Once these facilities come to fruition the hope from parents is that the clubs will have better control of costs, but player fees are unlikely to go down anytime soon.

For that to happen, the Timbers must commit additional development funds out of their own revenue to subsidize competitive youth club costs in order to make fees affordable to families across the board, not just the top and bottom of the financial scale, and not just for the co-branded clubs.

The European and South American models are designed to funnel the best talent to the local professional teams. The key difference is that when players are scouted and picked up by the competitive teams, the parent club foots all if not most of the bills for the players to participate.

If the Timbers want to truly build an academy model that gets them first dibs on the the next generation of homegrown Nagbes or Charas, keeping competitive club costs reasonable for all participants is the only way forward.

As it stands, the existing pay to play model means the Timbers are missing out on a huge swath of skilled players that are never seen by scouts because they can only afford to play at the recreational level and not make the financial step up to the competitive ranks.

For players that stick with the game without paying to pay club ball, there is some hope that doing well for their high school varsity team will get them a shot at exposure.

Unfortunately, the Timbers acceptance of US Soccer’s mandate for players who play for an academy team must forgo playing for school teams means that even if these players get noticed and picked up for the academy, they must then give up on the alternative route that got them there.

This push towards single sport and single team participation at the expense of everything else is nonsensical and asinine, to say the least. Many of the best players produced by US Soccer are goalkeepers like Kasey Keller and Tim Howard, who credit their athletic aptitude for their position to playing other sports growing up.

While some will argue that field players require more specialized training to succeed in soccer, it’s simply not true. Early specialization also pushes players to burn out of the sport faster, if injuries from overuse don’t make that choice for them sooner.

If the Timbers want the best athletes to be in the eventual academy pool, they need to make playing soccer the sport kids desire to play, not make it mandatory to play at the expense of their other interests.

Vancouver Whitecaps and Real Mallorca co-owner Steve Nash credits playing soccer while growing up for his court vision and telepathic passing abilities that cemented his success as an NBA player and earning MVP honors twice in his career.

Few would argue Nash’s athletic ability meant he could have played professional soccer if he so chose. His decision to play basketball represents a choice many youth soccer players will have to make someday, which sport do they eventually pursue if they want to chase their dreams?

Right now, the Timbers are making that decision too easy for many aspiring soccer players by putting a roadblock made of money in their path.

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Writing In A Timbers Wonderland

Caleb Porter shares the MLS Cup with Timberlandia. Credit: Portland Timbers

Caleb Porter shares the MLS Cup with Timberlandia. Credit: Portland Timbers

As you can see from the date of my last post, writing regularly this season was not my top priority, but the question was asked all season long, can the Timbers contend for trophies in 2015? That answer was provided in emphatic fashion Sunday evening in Ohio.

Why has it taken me so long to write about it? See below.

After four years of pouring out page after page via keyboard, it was time for a break. Keeping down a day job and making time for a passion for writing and soccer, maintaining relationships, and fathering and coaching two young boys required a serious overhaul of the time allotted to writing about the Portland Timbers.

After that first year of punditry from the proverbial stands (this blog filling up with usually sobered down post-match rants, er, posts), I was ‘called up’ to the press box and spent three campaigns staying abreast of every move the Timbers made.

Opining can only take you so far, and the responsibilities of building and managing a team of writers and photographers came along as friends Kelly McLain and Steve Clare offered me opportunities to more formally hone my craft as a proper journalist with Timbers Insider and Prost Amerika.

While editing and cat herding come naturally to me, there was only so much time in a day and I needed to find balance. Not only for my loved ones and gainful employers, but for my love of the Portland Timbers.

As a longtime season ticket holder who also enjoyed the access of press credentials, I was always torn between giving away or selling my seats to sit with the media instead. I know this is a personal quandary not many would pity me for, and it’s not lost on me that we are in Portland where scant empathy exists in a soccer stadium.

While the trade-off of sitting in the catbird’s seat at midfield with free regional cuisine was no hardship, leaving my mates and family in the North End leaves one longing for the energy you can only feel from the crowd’s perspective, standing up for ninety plus minutes while trying not to spill your beer (but not caring if it’s due to a home goal).

While there were many highs afforded me from wearing a media pass around my neck, straddling the line between supporter and having a backstage pass can be tricky. No wearing team gear or colors? Blasphemy.

This stadium is my church, who are you to tell me to leave my Timbers Army scarf at the door? Oh, you’re serving salmon as a sign of effigy to Seattle? OK, I suppose that sacrifice will suffice my loyalty as I tuck my colors in my bag to maintain my ‘professionalism’.

As the team at Prost Portland grew, I was able to find like-minded people who held a common love of the game, the Timbers, writing, and the imagery evoked on the pitch and in the stands. This shared experience was my new family up top, and allowed me to reconnect with my family down low.

While the view from above offers the great view one gets from their TV set, the distance from the field changes the experience. The camera angle for pre-match tifo is ideal, but the separation is distinctly disconnected, you are a witness, an observer, not a participant in one of the great rituals of the club and its followers.

It is that disconnected feeling that saw me back in the stands this season rather than a seat, and it rekindled my passion for the team, watching most home matches alongside my two young lads and recalling the nostalgic NASL matches of my youth.

While in the Fourth Estate one must strive for neutrality (not exactly a hallmark of modern news media, I know), but in sports being a beat reporter for your local team means you must become a harsh critic to counter any potential bias.

When you must interview players and coaches face to face, the criticism that comes so easy in the stands or through the internet becomes much more real when Caleb Porter offers a firm rebuke or simply stares you down.

You have to find a way to ask the questions that will make your friends happy (since we’ve sorted out all the roster decisions over pints already), while maintaining a rapport with the club officials and players to ensure we don’t offend (too much).

As this season wore on, it was anything but magical as the Timbers seemed to be performing a repeat of a dreadful 2014 season, when the postseason was missed by a point but felt much further away than that narrow margin.

The nadir seemed to be the 1-nil loss to Sporting Kansas City, Krizstian Nemeth’s sparkling run and finish that eventually claimed MLS Goal of the Year impressive not only in its execution but in how hapless he made Diego Chara, Nat Borchers, and Liam Ridgewell look as he ambled comfortably past them.

Those three looked the picture of impenetrability on Sunday in the team’s 2-1 triumph over Columbus Crew SC in Ohio, so in hindsight it’s fitting that goal takes home an award as it surely stuck in the minds of Portland defenders who chastened themselves against further embarrassment from would be goalscoring posterizers.

The SKC result in early October left the team languishing below the red line of playoff contention, and there was no room for error in the remaining three matches, two on the road. The response was a second win at Real Salt Lake, a place the team the Timbers had never won and now had done the double away in a season.

That was followed by a win at the LA Galaxy, a first victory away at that venue and one done in astonishing fashion as a five goal second half from the visitors made what appeared to be another easy win for the hosts into a rout of epic proportions.

That belief carried over to a home finale against the Colorado Rapids that again saw Portland dominate, Darlington Nagbe putting in a career performance that many saw as the catalyst to the team’s run to the MLS Cup.

Nagbe’s role in that postseason clinching win was instrumental, but it was not down to a tactical shift or playing him in his ‘natural’ position afforded by Diego Valeri’s absence. By Valeri inadvertently making way, Nagbe had no one to hide behind when it came to controlling the game. His seizure of the opportunity gave Nagbe and Timbers fans belief.

Right up to that game many in the stands were still unsure if Portland would blow the opportunity, and the thought of the Maestro sitting out the most important match of the year with captain Will Johnson already sidelined by injury left many uneasy, terrified the season would end in the cruelest of fashions.

To that point, many, myself included, were questioning Nagbe’s regular spot in the starting lineup, so limited was his production of goals or assists per 90 minute shift (less his brilliant solo goal against LA). When Nagbe’s confidence soared that match as the team’s leader, so did the TA’s and the rest of the team.

Peaking at the right time is an old cliche, but believing at the right time was more crucial for this Timbers squad. From so many frustrating moments earlier in the season the team was now clicking and playing passionate, aggressive football that was reaping goals and wins, a heady mix for a town so longing for a champion.

The first playoff hurdle against recent nemesis SKC saw Nemeth again there doing damage as his extra time goal looked set to break Portland hearts, but then Maxi Urruti did what earned him his own song and scored a last gasp equalizer. ‘Two posts’ in the most dramatic of penalty shootouts gave Adam Kwarasey the stage to put his spot kick home and deny his counterpart goalkeeper to seal victory, and the feeling of destiny stirred stronger than ever.

When Kwarasey missed the home match against the Vancouver Whitecaps some doubt crept back in, but Jake Gleeson’s superb clean sheet aided by a more resolute defense meant Portland held the tiebreaker advantage in the ensuing away leg.

Portland then took full advantage in our house in the middle of BC with Fanendo Adi putting away a lovely Valeri pass, then Chara sealed the deal in injury time as Adi fed the Colombian for another unlikely goal.

FC Dallas stood in Portland’s path to MLS Cup, but after winning the first leg at home 3-1 the Timbers looked set to advance easily through goals from Borchers, Ridgewell, and a cracker from Dairon Asprilla, particularly after Adi scored first in the away leg in Texas a week later.

Two second half goals in quick succession from the hosts put hearts in mouths in the Rose City, but again another player full of belief gave Portland a spark as Lucas Melano neatly rounded defender and keeper to put the game to bed at the death.

Watching a replay of that strike makes one wonder if Melano defied the laws of gravity and the game to score, although no one seemed to question if he was offside given he was ahead of the ball and out of bounds when he somehow tucked the ball into the net from a deft touch off the outside of his right boot.

However improbable the odds seemed in early October, Portland were now headed to Ohio.

Although Columbus conjured plenty of magic of their own to earn the right to host (no, I’m not bitter that head to head wasn’t the tiebreaker), that run of good fortune ended less than 30 seconds into the contest when Valeri pounced on a lackadaisical clearance from their dribble happy goalkeeper Steve Clark.

The resulting opening goal was the sort of slidetackling effort players dream of at every level, and it fittingly earned Valeri MLS Cup MVP honors.

Portland’s magical spell was at its peak in the first half, the referee and linesman somehow missing a ball clearly out of touch on the sidelines, yet the old adage of play to the whistle never rang truer as Nagbe picked the ball off the feet of Tony Tchani and proceeded to sprint past a Columbus defense entranced by disbelief.

Nagbe’s ball to Melano on the wing saw a pinpoint one touch cross to the diving header of Rodney Wallace find the back of the net, and this game looked all but over seven minutes in.

So. Much. Time.

The fear of every Timbers supporter is when in a winning position, the clock seems to take ten times as long to tick down.

When Kwarasey fumbled his catch after bumbling over Kei Kamara, the Crew’s leading goalscorer was quickest to react and squirted the ball over the line in the 18th minute to give Columbus the belief they needed that the tie was not nearly over.

And Timbers supporters were now in for the longest next 72 plus minutes of their lives.

Remarkably that would prove to be the hosts’ solitary shot on goal for the entire match, but the game was still up for debate until the final whistle, thanks to numerous stellar saves (and a few lucky ones) from Clark, as well as the soccer gods leveling the score as Michael Parkhurst’s handball to clear a sure goal off the line went unseen by the officials.

All the drama was there to make the Portland Timbers first league title in 40 years of existence all the more special, and the boisterous traveling support and legions of fans back home and around the world were only beginning to revel in it as the weight of this accomplishment started to sink in.

While many of us back home pined for the chance to be at the match with our friends and colleagues fortunate enough to attend, from thousands of miles away we were simply trying to get a hold of emotions that can only be felt after years of unrequited longing are satisfied with the ultimate in cup glory.

A raucous welcome home at Portland International Airport the day after the final provided the perfect segue to the long journey that ultimately brought home the MLS Cup.

Porter, owner Merritt Paulson, and Gavin Wilkinson all dreamed and planned for this eventuality, but none of them could have predicted it happening under such crazily auspicious circumstances.

I myself dreamt the Friday night before the final that two goals would be scored in the opening minutes of the match, but even in my dreams we were guardedly tied 1-1 after notching an equalizer.

This victory was not the stuff of dreams, it was the stuff of legends.

As the team, town, and TA prepare for the triumphant celebrations en masse on Tuesday, there is no doubt we will all be walking in a Timbers Wonderland for a long time to come.

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Can Timbers contend for trophies in 2015?

The Portland Timbers are gearing up for the 2015 season, fresh off preseason training in Tucson, Arizona. Now the team is back in the Rose City readying for the Simple Invitational preseason tournament, starting with a February 22nd clash against Cascadian counterparts Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Timbers will also square off against the Chicago Fire and Norwegian side Stabaek before a March 7th season opener against Real Salt Lake at home.

As tournament hosts Portland will benefit from the energy of ever exuberant home supporters, the Timbers Army sure to warm up their voices to shake off the rust from their winter of discontent.

After a record-setting 2013 season that saw the club advance under then first year manager Caleb Porter to the Western Conference finals, Portland fans were disappointed to miss the playoffs after a sub-par start in 2014 left the the team languishing below the thin red line of playoff contention at year’s end.

Add to that crashing out of the CONCACAF Champions League in the final group stage game, a U.S. Open Cup exit at the feet of archrivals Seattle Sounders, and finishing last in the Cascadia Cup standings, 2014 was not a year to remember for the boys in green.

While owner Merritt Paulson points to a strong finish and MLS era club records broken in goals scored (61) and away wins (7), neither were enough to salvage a campaign that conceded 52 goals and recorded only 5 wins at Providence Park.

Sugarcoating is too soft a word for the front office assessment.

Five points from the first 24 on offer in 2014 is a paltry return, a repeat of which would severely diminish postseason hopes with the West adding perennial contenders Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo to an already extremely competitive conference.

The rehabilitation from injury of captain Will Johnson and Designated Player and All Star Diego Valeri are expected to keep both out of regular action for the first month or so, signs pointing to a major void in the middle of the park.

Key to filling this hole is Darlington Nagbe, the fifth year midfielder now called upon to transition from potential superstar to a steady and consistent presence after experiencing a setback in scoring production last year, only netting a solitary goal in the team’s final match.

Nagbe’s seven assists last year showed he still possesses the vision and distribution to be dangerous, but a lack of goals makes him an easier target to mark for the opposition. If Diego Chara sits above Nagbe in the scoring charts for a second straight season, Portland is in for a long and trying season.

Rodney Wallace and Gaston Fernandez are two other players who will be crucial in midfield, the versatility of both giving Porter options as he tries to strike a balance on both sides of the ball.

Wallace was instrumental in the team’s late season resurgence after arriving late following recovery from a knee injury the prior offseason, five goals and an assist enough to make visiting defenders think twice when the Costa Rican is on or near the ball.

Fernandez notched seven goals and two assists in his first season with the Timbers, and the Argentine looks comfortable playing in Porter’s system as he can slot into several positions across the center of the park or higher in the attack.

Ben Zemanski and Jack Jewsbury offer veteran depth at both defensive midfield and outside back positions, while top draft pick Nic Besler is impressing as a holding midfielder, displaying the pedigree that has made his brother Matt of SKC a stalwart of the US Mens’ National Team.

Besler’s inclusion in the first team may be premature with the likes of Michael Nanchoff and George Fochive presumably ahead of him, but he’s one to keep tabs on for the future and should see ample minutes with Timbers 2, the club’s USL side.

Omar Cummings, an eight year veteran of MLS with 43 goals between stints at Colorado Rapids and Houston, scored a goal as a trialist for Portland to equalize against the Dynamo in Arizona last weekend, the Jamaican making a case for a contract with the Timbers.

Newcomer Dairon Asprilla from Colombia brings pace and creativity on the wing, and depending on how fast he settles in he could be an effective complement to Fanendo Adi or Maxi Urruti up top. If Asprilla can come anywhere near the production of these two strikers, he will be an unqualified success.

Another South American joins the club in defender Jeanderson, whether he can displace current incumbents Jorge Villafana or Alvas Powell in a wingback role depends on the tactics of the day for Porter, the Brazilian showing the capability to link up with the attack during limited action in the Desert Friendlies.

It’s unclear if Jeanderson will be an effective addition, but for an area in need of the most improvement it is difficult to see the club doing worse out wide.

In the middle of defense is where a step up was most critical, and the arrival of centerback Nat Borchers brings in a much needed veteran to pair with Designated Player Liam Ridgewell, who is fresh off a six match loan to Wigan Athletic in England.

The return of Ridgewell unscathed is welcome news for supporters, and the promise of the player starting the season fully match fit is another positive compared to joining a disjointed backline in the middle of 2014.

Borchers brings a wealth of experience from his days at RSL and previously in the Norwegian league, including MLS Cup championship credentials. Whether these two can form an early partnership complete with chemistry is vital to Portland’s playoff hopes.

Ties to Norway could prove helpful as the defense integrates a new starting goalkeeper in Adam Kwarasey, who joins the club from Norwegian side Strømsgodset.

Born in Oslo, Kwarasey opted to play for Ghana and was netminder for their opening match of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a 2-1 defeat to the United States. Yours truly was on hand to witness Kwarasey’s performance in Natal last summer, and while his misfortune was the USA’s gain, he was not at fault for either goal and was hard done by to lose his place in the following match.

In spite of a cruel end to his World Cup, playing on such a grand stage is ample preparation to fill the size-able shoes of the departed Donovan Ricketts, the Jamaican now at Orlando City FC after the Timbers left him unprotected in the expansion draft.

While the the Portland roster did not undergo a complete overhaul, the changes throughout the league means Porter must make do with what he has at his disposal and hope that it is enough to challenge for trophies.

A couple of extra points could have been enough to squeak into the playoffs last year, but it’s unlikely to be near enough to earn a crack at winning the MLS Cup. Hopes of a first place regular season finish are even more far-fetched after ending last season 15 points below Supporters Shield holders Seattle.

A Cascadia Cup is always in contention no matter how bad a team is doing as derbies are an altogether different animal, although that didn’t help a Timbers team that struggled with consistency and suffered from too many self-inflicted wounds.

The ultimate dream of a treble is a monumental ask for any team, but it is a farcical one for a squad that proved incapable of winning three games on the trot in 2014.

The defensive woes that plagued Portland last year appear to be remedied on paper, if they are to be playoff contenders they must survive a grueling start to the 2015 campaign that includes matches against playoff teams in seven of the first eight outings.

Can the Timbers vie for supremacy in any competition this season? Certainly.

Will they? Only if they can get at least half the points available in the first two months, and no less than a point away to Vancouver and Seattle.

If Portland can come out with a fighting chance come May, they will be a team to be reckoned with the remainder of the year, reaping the rewards of valuable minutes for fringe players adding required depth for multiple competitions when Johnson and Valeri return.

Should the Timbers repeat the start of last year, it will be another year to be forgotten, no matter how positive a spin one tries to put on it.

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