PORTLAND, Ore. – When Portland Timbers rookie striker Brent Richards trotted onto the pitch at JELD-WEN Field as a starter last Saturday against Chivas USA, it must have been quite the surprise for many casual fans.
After all, the Timbers have acquired two forwards already this season – including former No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Danny Mwanga – to match up with Designated Player Kris Boyd, so a 22-year-old rookie who hadn’t even totaled 90 minutes with the first team probably wasn’t on the forefront of many people’s minds.
But after a solid shift against Chivas, the club’s first Homegrown player, who grew up in nearby Camas, Wash., and played youth soccer with a Portland-area club before spending three years on the Timbers U-23 developmental team, certainly turned some heads.
“He’s a very, very effective player,” interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson said. “He strikes the ball well with both feet. And I think if we’re going to continue to talk about potential and continue to talk about young players, they need to be given a chance. I’m not trying to surprise people with his selection.”
Despite the Timbers' fifth consecutive loss, by a score of 1-0 against visiting Chivas, Richards drew only praise from Wilkinson. The former University of Washington star fired off four shots with one on goal in an overall solid performance by the entire squad despite the result.
“We created a lot of chances, but we didn’t put them away,” Richards said, referring to the Timbers' 20 shots. “I had several chances I think I should have finished. So that’s how you have to look at it; we did good things but probably not enough.”
And there was Richards back at training on Wednesday cajoling veteran defender Kosuke Kimura to keep feeding him crosses long after all the normal starters and coaches had made their way to the locker room.
“I’ve got to have the mindset that I have to get better every day, so if I have to stay after practice, that’s fine,” Richards said. “I enjoy it.”
It’s that type of mentality that made it too hard to keep Richards off not only the 18-man roster, but also the starting XI. Early in the season, Wilkinson said he wouldn’t have even considered it.
“I think Brent in preseason was dreadful,” Wilkinson said. “He was getting through his final exams. But I think in the last two months especially he has really, really grown as a player.”
Boyd had good things to say about his first-time partner up top as well.
“He created a few opportunities, he got a few strikes away,” Boyd said. “As a young kid, that’s what you like to do, come in and make an impact. And he’s done that. … He’s a great professional. He trains hard every day, and as long as he does that he has a chance to go far in the game.”
Richards said more training time and getting several reserve games under his belt helped build his confidence to the point where he knew he belonged in MLS. He made his first-team debut against the LA Galaxy on July 14 and started in a friendly against Aston Villa on July 24, so he said he wasn’t even that nervous when Wilkinson told him the day before the Chivas game that he’d be in the XI.
Now Richards hopes his hard work and late practices keeps his career in an upswing.
“I’ve come out and had a lot of confidence this week in training and done some good things,” he said. “So hopefully I can carry that to this weekend and hopefully get a start and play well again.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.