Portland Timbers allowing young players "a bit of freedom" and it is paying dividends

PORTLAND, Ore. – In speaking to MLSsoccer.com last week leading up to the Portland Timbers’ gigantic match against rival Seattle Sounders, general manager Gavin Wilkinson gushed about where his team is headed – not just for the rest of this year, but into the future.

Of course, when you have 23-year-old attacker Darlington Nagbe on your team, who topped MLSsoccer.com’s 24 Under 24 list this year and leads the team with nine goals, it would be hard not to feel good. But Nagbe is only one of a host of talented youngsters on the Timbers roster, just waiting for their time in the spotlight.

“I think we’re built to last,” Wilkinson said. “It was built that way from Day 1. … We’re structuring this to keep a flow. All contracts are expiring in key positions at different times, all within cap. So it is built to last, which is how we wanted to go about doing this.”

A big chunk of that young talent was on display in the Timbers’ 1-0 victory over Seattle.

With Designated Player and offensive centerpiece Diego Valeri out with an injury and forward Rodney Wallace away with Costa Rica on international duty, head coach Caleb Porter didn’t hesitate to turn to his young talent.

Porter shifted Nagbe, who normally mans the right-wing forward position, to Valeri’s central attacking role. That allowed him to bring in 23-year-old Kalif Alhassan and 21-year-old Jose Valencia on the wings, behind 22-year-old Maximiliano Urruti, who has started four games since his acquisition on Sept. 9.

It paid off with Alhassan scoring the game’s only goal. But not only that, Nagbe was clearly one of the most dangerous players on the field running the show; he completed 42 of his 46 passes on the night.

“There have been so many guys that have transformed as players,” Porter told reporters after the game. “The talent was always there – Rodney Wallace, Kalif, some of the guys, Darlington – the talent’s there, but it’s getting them in the right role, it’s getting them bought in, it’s allowing them a bit of freedom.”

Alhassan is a perfect example of that transformation. His talent has never been questioned, but used mostly as a substitute this season he has transformed into a more complete player, Porter said. He has scored a career-high three goals and recorded three assists in 28 appearances but just 14 starts.

“Kalif, it’s not just on ball, it’s his defending,” Porter said. “Watch how hard the kid works. He didn’t even know the word defend, I don’t think. I think it’s a product of having these guys bought in. They’re good guys, they have good characters. You get good guys that are talented and have character and you get them bought in, and get them together and get them in the right roles, this is what can happen.”

Now with just two regular-season games left, and Valeri’s status still uncertain, Porter appears to have little hesitation thrusting his young stars into key roles as Portland push for the Supporters’ Shield.

“They've gotten chances and done very well with them,” veteran defender Jack Jewsbury said. “I think we're happy it's not only the guys that have started the games. … It's a group effort, and that's one reason we've been so successful."

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.