Of all the Portland Timbers’ players, Mamadou “Futty” Danso has reason to feel just a little extra pride over their first-ever berth to the MLS playoffs.
The 30-year-old center back could be considered the original Timbers player, having played with the franchise since all the way back to the 2009 season when they were a part of the USL. But before he was able to stand in front of a sellout crowd at JELD-WEN Field to celebrate the MLS Timbers qualifying for the postseason last Saturday, Danso had to overcome a lot.
He came into the year struggling to adjust to new head coach Caleb Porter’s high-pressure system and didn’t even break into the 18 for the first month and a half of the season. Then, after finally working his way back into the starting lineup, he suffered a fractured foot, the same injury that plagued his 2012 season, which kept him sidelined for more than two months this summer.
Through it all, the soft-spoken Gambian has transformed into a key piece on one of the league’s best defensive teams.
“I always liked Futty from Day 1 and was impressed with his size and athleticism,” Porter told MLSsoccer.com. “He also struck me immediately as being a very good person and well liked in the locker room. The only thing that took a bit of time is adjusting to our style of play.”
Danso’s perseverance in coming to terms with what Porter expected from him paid off when he was awarded his first appearance of the season in a start April 14 against San Jose. He started nine games before injuring his foot in an exhibition game in July against Norwich City.
He made another return to the starting lineup Sept. 20 and – having grown comfortable in both defending and being on the ball pushing forward, Porter said – has started all five of the Timbers’ games since. His impact is easy to quantify: Portland are unbeaten in his 14 starts with eight wins and a .64 goals against average.
Danso said he tried to stay as involved as possible while undergoing rehab, frequently consulting with his teammates and coaches on what they were trying to achieve on the pitch.
“I was trying to come back as soon as I could,” Danso said. “I knew at the end of the day if I came back and tried to force it could be the end of my career if something bad happened.”
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When Danso did return to the lineup again it surprised some, considering 21-year-old Andrew Jean-Baptiste, who took his place next to Pa Modou Kah, had just been named to MLSsoccer.com's 24 Under 24 list and had shown signs of dominance. But Porter said he wanted Danso’s experience for the season’s crucial final stretch.
“He’s a very calm person, almost peaceful off the field, which translates into him being a player with quiet confidence and composure on the field,” Porter said.
Danso said part of his emergence has been just getting on the same page with Porter, saying he “really likes” his style of coaching and their frequent one-on-one conversations about what is expected of him. But the humble Danso deflects credit for the Timbers’ solid defensive play, especially of late with four clean sheets in their last five games.
“We try to defend as a group, as a unit,” Danso said. “I feel like I came in at the right time. … I don’t think it’s me coming in. I was there when the team needs me.”
Porter also credits Danso’s relationship with Kah, who is also from the Gambia. The two actually communicate in their native language, Wolof, while on the pitch.
“They have a great understanding and respect for each other because of their cultural commonality,” Porter said. “I feel like their bond is deeper than just teammates but almost like brothers, which never hurts having that type of partnership in the backbone of your team.”
When it comes to the reward of going to the playoffs after investing so much in the franchise, Danso again speaks only of the team – and their ultimate ultimate goal.
“I still don’t know how to get excited about the playoffs,” he said. “I knew this was a good team from the very beginning. … We want to set our bar high and go for it. If we’re going to be in the playoffs we might as well win everything.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.