All part of the plan: Portland Timbers' U-23 team is focused on developing future first-team talent

Gabriel Conelian

Photo Credit: 
Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers

PORTLAND, Ore. – The Portland Timbers U-23s’ US Open Cup run came to an end Tuesday night in a second-round loss to USL Pro side Charleston Battery.

But if the small-but-loyal group of fans who braved the wet, chilly weather at JELD-WEN Field to cheer on the Timbers' PDL affiliate noticed a familiar on-field product, that’s by design.

And it doesn’t just stem from first-team head coach Caleb Porter’s aggressive, possession-orientated style of play. The way the Timbers evaluate talent and what they expect out of every position on the first-team side is being reflected at every level of the club.

“You look at the whole youth structure, all of this has to be a replica in some way,” Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson said, "and it’s partly Caleb, it’s partly the club, but there’s a performance plan in place that identifies what we want to do and how we want to go about doing it."

Wilkinson said the club has set distinct performance indicators for every position and talent profiles of every player throughout its academy, all the way down to the U-16 and U-18 levels. It’s all geared toward the ultimate goal of developing players to seamlessly transition to the first team.

And much like the first team, which is enjoying an MLS-franchise-best 10-game unbeaten streak, the U-23s had unprecedented success with a first-ever second-round USOC appearance. They beat the Sacramento Gold of the National Premier Soccer League in the first round.

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“We bring this down to every level within the club where the players have to fit a certain profile and then we’re asking them to play a certain way,” Wilkinson said. “And that certain way is not only dictated by style and system but also by the objectives within those positions. So it does run down throughout the whole club.”

In the Timbers’ first two seasons in MLS, that’s resulted in Homegrown players Brent Richards and Steven Evans signing with the first team. They’ve also seen some of their U-23 players sign with other clubs, such as Vancouver rookie Erik Hurtado who played high school soccer in nearby Beaverton.

But Wilkinson doesn’t expect that system to change, despite the MLS agreement with USL PRO that would allow the Timbers to turn their U-23 team into a USL PRO club. That would give the first team rights to all the players rather than just select Homegrown signings.

Wilkinson said they want the U-23s to maintain amateur status in the Premier Development League so players can still keep their college eligibility. As such, they're officially outside of the academy spectrum - but still very much a part of Portland's plans.

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“Even though we don’t have Homegrown rights to those players, we get to work with them day in and day out and find out more about them as a player and a person,” Wilkinson said. “And should they become available to be drafted or should we have the ability in some stage the future to acquire them, we know exactly what we’re getting.”

But Wilkinson said there are plans in place next year to either create a new second-division team or form an affiliation with a current USL PRO side to add another level of player development to their hierarchy. That team could provide a chance for undrafted U-23 players to continue their development in the Timbers system and for reserve first-team players to get more playing time.

“The first team is the ultimate in everything we’re doing,” Wilkinson said.

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.