PORTLAND, Ore. – On a team that seems to get better with each outing, perhaps no player personifies the ascension of the Portland Timbers than 20-year-old midfielder Kalif Alhassan.
In Sunday evening’s 3-2 win over FC Dallas, the young Ghanaian international became the first Timbers player to record two assists in an MLS game.
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In the 13th minute, Alhassan dished the ball out to Jack Jewsbury for the first goal of the match. Then, in the second half, Alhassan did all the dirty work, eluding four FC Dallas defenders before Rodney Wallace slotted home for the eventual winner.
“He did all the work,” Wallace said. “I was just in the right place to finish it. [Alhassan] said I stole it, but I got the goal and he got the assist, so it worked out for the both of us.”
Alhassan’s great performance on Sunday came just days three days after he set up Jorge Perlaza’s historic first Timbers goal at JELD-WEN Field in Thursday’s 4-2 against the Chicago Fire.
It’s a remarkable rise for a player that came on as a second-half sub in the season opener against Colorado and did not play at all week later at Toronto.
“I think the last two games, and for the last month, [Alhassan has] really changed his whole mentality toward being a professional,” Timbers coach John Spencer said. “He realizes what myself and the rest of my staff want. When we don’t have the ball, you can’t just play one way.”
The Ghanaian midfielder came to Portland late last summer for the final eight games of the second-division Timbers’ season. He was brought back to training and was one of a handful of players to earn a roster spot in this year’s Timbers MLS squad, but few people were expecting such an impact.
“I am feeling more confident,” the soft-spoken Alhassan said about his rise after the win over Dallas. “With this crowd, we’re going to win our home [games] because they’re so amazing and we love them.”
The tide began to turn for Alhassan on March 29, in a US Open play-in game against Chivas USA, in which he started as a wide midfielder and played reasonably well. Five days later, at New England, he fired a free kick that hit the crossbar with 20 minutes left and could have lifted the team out of its 1-1 tie.
Alhassan had near-misses on goal during both games in Portland’s homestand, but it’s his ability to hold possession and distribute that have been key to the Timbers’ seven-goal explosion at JELD-WEN Field the past two games. And his contributions in the back are going unnoticed.
“Landon Donovan and Ryan Giggs, all these guys at the top of their game, when they lose the ball, they’re expected to track back,” Spencer explained. “That’s what Kalif struggled with at the start.
“Now, he realizes that it doesn’t matter how good you are [on the ball], you’ve got to work your opponent and win your individual battles.”
With rookie Darlington Nagbe bucking for additional playing time and Designated Player Diego Chará expected arrive in Portland from Colombia in a week, Alhassan’s quality play may give the coaching staff a welcome dilemma over how to distribute minutes in the midfield.
After showing what he can do in front of Portland’s sellout crowds, Alhassan’s next challenge will be carrying his high level of play on the road.