Portland aim for the top after opening week of preseason
PORTLAND, Ore. — With the first week of preseason training nearly over, two things are certain: Portland Timbers head coach John Spencer is right where he wants to be.
And he expects all his players to feel the same way.
"When there's such a long period off from training, guys miss it," Spencer told reporters. "If you took all the money out of the game, these guys would still play. They play pickup games whenever they're available to play. For us, you just miss the game. I went on vacation to Hawaii, and not getting a text for three days from [GM] Gavin [Wilkinson] or [owner] Merritt [Paulson], I was having withdrawal symptoms."
Spencer is eager for the days to fly by and return to the competitive MLS season, as his side to aim to better last year's record of 11-14-9.
“Almost perversely, you want to get back to the nerves and butterflies you get when you're driving to the stadium before a big game,” Spencer said. “So I'm looking forward to it."
Timbers players and coaches were finally able to satisfy the desire to get back on the pitch when they reported to JELD-WEN Field for fitness training on Monday. Regular practices started Tuesday, and Spencer said nearly all his players came into camp in exceptional shape.
"The good thing about most American players is they look after their bodies all year round, which is good for coaches," Spencer said.
The looming storyline surrounding Portland's second MLS season is whether they'll have the firepower to make a run to the MLS Cup Playoffs. Last season, the Timbers fell just short of the postseason after a late-season surge.
They'll do it without their leading scorer from 2011, forward Kenny Cooper, who was traded to New York for a 2013 draft pick. In his place, 20-year-old Colombian José Adolfo Valencia will try to kick start an offense that ranked just 14th in the league in total goals.
"You can't move back in professional sports," Spencer said. "You've got to look ahead, and that's what we'll do. We have to try to be better than where we were last year. And try to go and win a championship, not just make playoffs but to try to go and win a championship."
A number of players will also try to build on success or redeem disappointing showings from last year.
Second year forward/midfielder Darlington Nagbe will look to translate his well-known talent into more production after scoring two goals in his rookie campaign. Injured forwards Eddie Johnson and Bright Dike will try to compete for playing time on a front line with no established stars.
Meanwhile, midfielder and captain Jack Jewsbury will try to build on his career season last year as the team's lone All-Star.
"I'm definitely excited about the way things are going and about how things are going to turn out here," Jewsbury said.
For the time being, the Timbers will spend the next two months of the preseason honing in on their goals. They'll depart for preseason camp in Carson, Calif., on Feb. 5 and play their first exhibition match Feb. 7 against the defending MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield champion LA Galaxy.
"It's just about building your confidence up, I think that’s the biggest thing," Nagbe said of the preseason. "Build your confidence leading up into the games and leading up into the season."
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org