Commentary: Less gambles, more guile from Timbers in '13

PORTLAND, Ore. – There’s no question, the Portland Timbers took a gamble in their first two seasons in MLS.

Yes, they loaded up with MLS veterans like Jack Jewsbury, Kenny Cooper and Eric Brunner, but the front office also dipped its toes into the international pool and handed huge roles to young and talented players as well.

And there was a lot of cache surrounding the likes of Colombians Diego Chara and Jorge Perlaza, the sweet ball handling abilities of Ghanaian Kalif Alhassan and the sheer hair-raising talent of rookie Darlington Nagbe in the team’s inaugural season. Throw in Scottish hero Kris Boyd as a worthy upgrade from Cooper ahead of the 2012 season and it was clear: The Timbers would be damn fun to watch, if they could piece it all together.

The team’s hot and heavy wheeling and dealing right when the clock struck offseason – having already made four major acquisitions since Dec. 3 – offers a look into what, exactly, went wrong with their founding philosophy.

The Timbers just weren’t tough enough.

That was clear when general manager Gavin Wilkinson (right) brought in blue-collar guys like  defender Michael Harrington and midfielder Will Johnson on the first day of the offseason. They're highly regarded, no frills-types who come from two of the league’s most successful organizations.

So while Alhassan may bring a frothing crowd at JELD-WEN Field to their feet with a few step overs, that doesn’t help when you’re getting drubbed 5-0 at FC Dallas – as they did on July 21.

These days Wilkinson is all about one simple idea: Get me guys who know how to win in MLS.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Portland Timbers

He’s talking about integrity on the training field and on game day. He wants guys who are willing to put in the work and not complain if they aren’t in the starting lineup. He’s after maturity for a full 90 minutes.

And while it may sound trivial, he wants guys who are unfazed by a cross-country trip and ready to grind out a result. That makes sense: the Timbers have won just three of 34 games away from home in two seasons on the map. That has to change.

In a way, though, it’s a testament to MLS. It’s a tough league. Boyd told me as much when I asked him about what fellow Scot and good friend Kenny Miller was getting into when he signed on with Vancouver midseason. The travel, the heat, the altitude; it all takes its toll.

Perhaps the Timbers have known this all along, and they thought it might work playing a flash-bang style under John Spencer. Sweat out barnburners at home, hunker down on the road and pray for a result. Unfortunately for Spencer, it cost him his job.

That’s not how things will work under Caleb Porter, described by Wilkinson as “cerebral” and known for his relentless possession-oriented attack. It was on display as soon as Spencer was shown the door and Porter hired in absentia. Under Wilkinson’s interim guidance – with Porter undoubtedly whispering in his ear – Portland switched to a 4-3-3 formation and possession, passing and shot numbers all improved.

It’s why the Wilkinson-Porter team shored up the midfield with road-tested guys like Johnson and Harrington – more no-nonsense, less step-over. And Porter’s fingerprints were all over Wednesday’s acquisition of forward Ryan Johnson and goalkeeper Milos Kocic in a trade for promising young ‘keeper Joe Bendik as well.

Johnson is a proven talent in the league – he’s bounced around a bit but established himself as a double-digit scoring threat every season in the right system – and Kocic should be a worthy challenger to incumbent Donovan Ricketts.

And just to show they're still not averse from making headlines with a big, flashy name, reports emerged Thursday that the club is maneuvering into position to snag Norwegian-American midfielder Mix Diskerud, who last month scored his first goal for the US national team and played for Porter with the Under-23s.  

What's different this time, though, is they're not betting the house on a guy like Diskerud. They have questions – will Boyd finally get it together, can Nagbe jibe with Porter again, what will Bright Dike become in 2013? – but finally it appears like the Timbers are looking for answers in the right places.

Less gambles, more guile. Get used to it.