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Portland Timbers’ Report Card: Who Excelled and Who Flunked?

Sunday, November 02, 2014


Photo Credit: rayterrill via Compfight cc

It's fair to say that the Portland Timbers have had two successful MLS seasons and two unsuccessful ones. The first year I did player grades for the Timbers after the season was 2012 - the first unsuccessful season, and a campaign so dire that I simply split the players up into two categories: Keep 'em, and get rid of 'em.

Obviously this year, the second failed Timbers MLS season, doesn't require such drastic measures. Portland ended up missing the playoffs by a single point, while scoring the fourth most goals in the league. They've got good players, a good manager, and although they underachieved this year, there's no need to panic.

Without further ado, here are the 2014 Timbers player grades.

Donovan Ricketts: A-

At some point when the Timbers' defense was a flaming trash heap in the spring and early summer, it became fashionable to start talking about Donovan Ricketts' downfall. Ricketts took about ten games to fully warm up - as he'll tell you, he's old - but Ricketts was mostly his old self this season. Difference was, his saves weren't saving three points, they were usually contributing in an effort to get one.

Ricketts is still a superb shot-stopper. He doesn't do anything else particularly well, but his saves kept the Timbers around in games all year. The Jamaican is still a top-tier MLS goalkeeper, and the Timbers would be hard pressed to find anyone better to wear #1.

Best game: @ Colorado (2). Worst game: @ Real Salt Lake (1).

Jake Gleeson: A

Gleeson - finally getting a chance to play every day with Sacramento FC - established himself as a top goalkeeper in USL and reminded everyone of the promise he carried when he burst onto the scene in 2011.

Gleeson, who supplanted Andrew Weber as the backup 'keeper when he returned to Portland after the USL championship, should be with the big club from now on.

Best/worst game: N/A

Andrew Weber: C-

When Donovan Ricketts was red-carded against Colorado and Weber filled in for him at the beginning of the year, he did a nice job. He saved a penalty at Dicks' Sporting Goods Park, and despite conceding four goals, made some big plays against the Sounders.

But as the rust set in and the sample size increased, Weber was exposed in the CONCACAF Champions League. His blunder against Olimpia ended up costing the Timbers a chance to move on in the competition, and probably cost Weber his job.

Best game: vs. Seattle (1). Worst game: vs. Olimpia

Alvas Powell: B

It's hard to grade Alvas Powell's season: In the first half, he was a joke - out of control and not ready to play at an MLS level mentally or physically. When Powell got sent off for what was quite possibly the most shocking challenge ever seen from an MLS Timbers player against Columbus and then went on loan to Sacramento FC, it was doubtful that Powell would ever make it back to Portland.

But somehow, Powell figured things out and made it back. When given another chance with the Timbers, he played well enough on defense to let his offense shine through - and if the last game in Dallas is any indicator, the defense might be coming around too. Powell ended the year with the club's Young Player of the Year award, and huge expectations for 2015. Not bad for the youngster.

Best game: @ FC Dallas (2). Worst game: vs. Columbus

Liam Ridgewell: B

It's pretty simple: Liam Ridgewell is a good player who was and will continue to be valuable for Portland and one of the first names on the team-sheet each week. He is, however, way overpaid for someone in his position and at his talent level, and not a truly great defender.

Ridgewell is a top-level player when the game is in front of him - he's a good organizer, comfortable with the ball on his feet, and physically adept. But Ridgewell has trouble with speed and tracking runs, and his awareness in the box isn't great. His personality - downright bubbly, for a Brit - helped sell him to Caleb Porter and the Timbers in July, and it's helped sell him to fans and his teammates. Ridgewell is here to stay. The question is if he'll ever be able to pay off the investment the Timbers made in him.

Best game: vs. Chivas USA (2). Worst game: @ Olimpia

Pa Moudu Kah: C-

Kah just had a shocker of a year all around. He hurt himself in warmups. He hurt himself celebrating a Diego Chara goal against Seattle. He hurt himself just minutes into the first game of the season. He gave Darlington Nagbe one of the most famous kisses in team history. Kah would be staggeringly bad - his unique mix of idiocy and misplaced aggression - and then utterly competent. Usually in consecutive games.

It's anyone's guess whether Kah will be back in 2015. His play hasn't warranted a return, but his gregarious nature would make it hard to see him go. One thing is for sure. This Timbers team will be a lot less fun when Kah isn't around.

Best game: vs. Vancouver (2). Worst game: vs. Vancouver (1)

Jorge Villafaña: B+

What's interesting about Jorge Villafana is how he got his start with the Timbers. After not making the bench for almost the first two months of the season, Villafana was included in the 18 and then called upon after Powell's red card against Columbus. From there, he was a first-choice player - and the best and most effective crosser on the team.

He's not a great defender, but Villafana's value as an attacking wing player to the Timbers cannot be overstated. He's established himself as an MLS regular - a long way from the tryout show with which he started his career.

Best game: @ LA (1). Worst game: vs. Vancouver (1)

Norberto Paparatto: D+

I'll cut Paparatto some slack: It's hard to adjust to a new team, a new continent and a new language in a month or two. But few players have ever done less to endear themselves to a fan-base than Paparatto did this year in Portland. He didn't do interviews, didn't score a big goal, didn't make a big tackle, didn't interact with the community, and never really got going.

His play improved markedly over the last few months of the season once he got another run in the team, but on the wrong side of 30, getting slower, and as a really poor distributer, it's hard to see a longterm future for the Argentine in Portland.

Best game: vs. Chivas USA (2). Worst game: @ FC Dallas (1)

Michael Harrington: C

Harrington didn't have an especially bad year, but he was exposed for what he is: A very average, very limited MLS fullback. Harrington's lack of speed and big-play ability in attack saw Caleb Porter searching for a replacement as Harrington was consistently burned against better offensive players.

Harrington can be a starter in MLS, but since the Timbers' found a way of including their fullbacks in the offense in late summer, it has looked more and more like Harrington's days in Portland could be numbered. He'll be someone to watch in the offseason, as he most likely won't be protected in the expansion draft and could be a nice piece for a new team.

Best game: vs. Philadelphia. Worst game: vs. Seattle (2)

Jack Jewsbury: B-

Jewsbury, much like Harrington, played his game when he was given the opportunity to this year. We know what Jewsbury's strengths and weaknesses are, and so does the rest of MLS: He's very good on the ball for a full-back, can read the game, and is an average 1v1 defender at best with no speed.

The emergence of Villafana took Jewsbury out of the lineup, and it will be tough for him to get back in. Still, the old captain is an important locker room presence and a good role player who is part of the fabric of the club. He should stick around.

Best game: vs. Columbus. Worst game: vs. Vancouver (1)

Danny O'Rourke: C

Danny O'Rourke was brought on as a nice depth piece, and it's really Caleb Porter's fault for trying to get too much out of his player. Not only is O'Rourke not a starter in this league, he's not a center-back at all, and when paired next to someone like Raushawn McKenzie, he'll struggle.

O'Rourke did as well as could reasonably be expected for someone taken off the scrap heap in the middle of the year. As a cheap option, he could be back in 2015.

Best game: vs. Dallas (1). Worst game: Seattle (2)

Raushawn McKenzie: D-

He seems like a good guy, Raushawn McKenzie, but he's not even remotely close to being a serviceable MLS player. It wasn't just his haircut that made you close your eyes when he was in the lineup.

McKenzie had a couple of solid games, but mostly struggled mightily in his shockingly long time in the team before getting yanked at halftime of the home game against Dallas on the eve of the World Cup.

Best game: @ Real Salt Lake (2). Worst game: vs. Dallas

Diego Chara: A

Chara's best year ever? Quite possibly. Sometimes Chara's play can be indistinguishable from game to game - he runs a ton, breaks up attack after attack with tackles and often fouls, and is an effective passer and attacking runner out of midfield. He does a lot to help the Timbers win each and every week, but it's hard to tell sometimes when Chara is having a great game and when he is having an average game.

But when Will Johnson went down in Toronto, it became a lot easier to see how vital Chara is. He is simply everywhere, at all times. Caleb Porter's biggest mistake in the loss to Olimpia was not playing Chara - the Timbers looked naked without him. Against RSL in the final home game of the year, Chara played one of the most statistically successful games for a holding midfielder in MLS history. Chara is one of the Timbers' best and most important players, and still one of the most underrated players in the league.

Best game: vs. Seattle (1). Worst game: vs. Columbus

Will Johnson: C

It was always going to be impossible for Will Johnson to match his 2013 production. Johnson is just never going to be a double-digit goal and attacking lynchpin ever again. And that's fine, since goalscoring wasn't what Johnson was brought to Portland and made captain to do anyway.

The problem this year wasn't so much Johnson's decreased production, it was more his erratic play. Far too often Johnson would be caught upfield neglecting his defensive duties, and his lack of understanding with Chara was bizarre considering the season those two had last year. Johnson was one of the main reasons Portland played so recklessly until the fall, and by the end of the season, his frequent tantrums were just childish and embarrassing. When Will gets back on the field next year, he needs to get back to the basics of what made him such a valuable player in the first place.

Best game: vs. Columbus. Worst game: vs. San Jose (1)

Ben Zemanski: A-

When Will Johnson went down, it was telling that Caleb Porter never even considered any other option - Jack Jewsbury, Gaston Fernandez, a second striker, anything - besides starting Ben Zemanski. What Zemanski had, then, was a five-match audition to show that he could be an MLS starter.

Zemanski did very well. Though he's limited, Zemanski a player who doesn't try to be anything he's not - he plays simple, he covers ground defensively, and he doesn't get sucked out of position. Discipline and work-rate, possibly the two most important attributes for a player with his skill-set, are there for Big Ben. The Timbers will certainly try to keep Zemanski in the offseason, but there's a lingering line of thought that says some team may give him a shot to be an everyday player.

Best game: vs. San Jose (2). Worst game: vs. Seattle (1)

Diego Valeri: A

There was a point in the beginning of the year when a few people in Portland were running with the narrative that Valeri was off his game. It was mostly because, though he was pouring in assists, the Argentine wasn't scoring. That and people were noticing how many through-balls and lobs and passes Valeri was attempting that weren't working.

Well, we all know what happened. The goalscoring came in a flurry, and Valeri's pension for taking risks, for trying things, started to pay off in a huge way. Without Valeri, the Timbers go from the fourth-best offense in the league to one of the worst offenses in the league, and in a year that saw goalscoring production from the midfield drop dramatically, Valeri was a saving grace. It doesn't hurt that he's just about the most likable star we've ever seen in Portland, and his All-Star game winning 40-yard cross to Landon Donovan should go down as one of the greatest moments in Providence Park history.

Best game: vs. San Jose (1). Worst game: vs. Chicago

Darlington Nagbe: B-

You can spin it any which way, but there's no denying that Darlington Nagbe's 2014 season was a major disappointment. At the beginning of the year, Nagbe was being talked about as a fringe MVP candidate with a US National Team future. At the end of the year, he was finally celebrating his first goal.

It wasn't that Nagbe played terribly - he had a career high in assists, and was a major contributor week after week for the Timbers especially with his ability to shuttle and relieve pressure, but someone with Nagbe's talent level has to score goals to play to his full potential. Too often Nagbe got into great positions and came up empty. This year was a setback - even if there was an element of lucklessness to Nagbe's scoreless streak - because scoreless streaks like that don't happen to the truly elite players for 33 games. He'll try to make that jump in 2015. The future is still very bright.

Best game: @ Vancouver. Worst game: vs. Real Salt Lake.

Photo Credit: rayterrill via Compfight cc

Rodney Wallace: A-

By the end of March, it was obvious how much the Timbers missed Rodney Wallace. They missed his spacing, his directness, his production, and the balance he provided that was so obviously missing as the offense sputtered over the first two months of the season. By late April, Steve Zakuani was tasked with being Wallace, but he obviously wasn't. 

Getting the Costa Rican back from his ACL tear in June - along with the addition of Fanendo Adi - was the greatest reason that Portland's offense had a second-half renaissance. Wallace continues to be Caleb Porter's greatest credit - transforming from ne'er-do-well fullback to invaluable winger. 

Best game: @ San Jose. Worst game: vs. Seattle (2)

Steve Zakuani: D

It was abundantly clear as time went on this season, to everyone, Steve Zakuani, his teammates, his coaches, Timbers supporters, the rest of MLS, everyone, that the former #1 draft pick and rising star was not and would never be the same player he once was. Caleb Porter, who has watched the rise of Zakuani from the bench at Akron, gave his former college star every chance in the world to be successful.

He started games he shouldn't have in the hope that maybe reps were what Zakuani needed to recover the touch, the pace, and the engine that had been missing since his double leg break in Commerce City, Colorado more than three years ago. Zakuani's decision to retire was easily foreseeable. He is putting himself out of the constant physical pain he has endured, and his own misery of being a shell of the player he once was.

Best game: @ New York. Worst game: @ Seattle. 

Kalif Alhassan: F

I think I'm in a different place than many on Kalif Alhassan. I genuinely and totally want this player to succeed. Not only because he is the last remaining USL Timber with the club, but because we've all seen how good he can be. Kalif is a big-game player. His best moments - and there have been some breathtaking moments - have come when the lights have shone brightest.

But you can feel Alhassan's career slipping away. Alhassan's inconsistency - and some say his focus and work-rate - are crippling. He went backwards this year, not getting minutes, starting a career low five games, and becoming disillusioned and frustrated by the end of the season. Alhassan needs a fresh start. That might mean a new team in spades, but it mostly means that he needs to assess his career and ask himself whether he wants to continue to play in MLS and ever get anywhere in his career.

Best game: vs. Seattle (1). Worst game: vs. Chivas USA

Gaston Fernandez: B

Make no mistake: Gaston Fernandez is a talented and valuable player. He's not, however, a starter or star for the Portland Timbers, and when he was made the team's marquee signing from Argentina in the offseason, that's what he was billed as. Part of that dichotomy is not Fernandez's fault - he's a withdrawn striker or #10, and the Timbers already have someone at that position: Diego Valeri.

When Fernandez was started alongside Valeri at the beginning of the season, neither player had any space, which is why Fernandez got dropped from the team. La Gata is a luxury player - talented, but not consistently game-changing, doesn't play any defense, and doesn't affect the game physically. Considering all of that, Fernandez had a great year. He scored goals off the bench, made some big plays, and rescued his fair share of points. With Valeri's ACL injury, Fernandez will most likely play a big role at the beginning of next season.

Best game: vs. DC United. Worst game: vs. Seattle (2)

Fanendo Adi: B+

It's fairly well-known around MLS circles that the Timbers were targeting a bigger name striker than Fanendo Adi when they signed the Nigerian on a short-team loan deal from Copenhagen in May. But Adi immediately came in and made an impact. His first Timbers touch set up a game-tying goal in a wild 3-3 draw with Columbus, and he proceeded to win a full-team deal and a DP contract.

Adi's mere presence was a sort of catharsis - Portland had been going with a forward platoon of Fernandez and Maxi Urruti - but Adi's play at times this year was perfection from a mostly back-to-goal #9. He worked hard all year, and came up with some massive performances. Equally impressive was Adi's quick start in a league that is difficult to come into midseason. He's set to become the first starting forward to last more than one season in Portland.

Best game: vs. Vancouver (2). Worst game: vs. Sporting Kansas City

Maxi Urruti: B

It's hard to argue with Urruti's terrific goal output this year, especially considering he didn't score for almost the first two months of the season. Urruti came into the season as the Timbers' main striker and was so abominably bad that it often felt like the Timbers were playing with ten men. But things got better over the course of the year, because Urruti is better coming off the bench anyway. 

As a starter, Urruti usually has an anemic influence on the game besides his constant whining. But the more tired defenders are, the easier it is for Urruti to find space, which is why he's good late in games - and his finishing somehow became clinical over the summer. He's terrific trade bait - and that's how he should be used, if possible - but the Timbers could do worse than starting with Adi and finishing with Urruti again next year. 

Best game: @ New York. Worst game: vs. Seattle (2)

Other notable players who suited up for the first team this year include Michael Nanchoff and Taylor Peay, both of whom made nice strides and should be expected to be around next year. And it's happy trails to Futty Danso and Frederic Piquionne, two players who departed midseason for very different reasons. 

That's it, and that's all for the Timbers in 2014.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from Abe Asher, check out his page here. To read the rest of our columns, check out our page here.


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