He never wants to talk about it, but so much of Caleb Porter’s first season in Portland has been about putting the Timbers’ short MLS history behind them, whether that be from moving on from two seasons outside of the playoffs or turning around a terrible road record that’d come to define the club. Sitting fourth in the West and having won at Kansas City a week ago, Portland’s already started to match owner Merritt Paulson’s aspirations. Reflections on the past will soon be little more than a literary device for unimaginative authors.
There are, however, small remnants of the past which keep popping up. For example, with the Timbers in Dallas tonight, Portland fans are reminded of two of the worst losses in team history. Two years ago, during the team’s inaugural season, Portland lost 4-0 in their first trip to what was then Pizza Hut Park, and while the Timbers earned a 1-1 draw when they returned next March, their last visit to Dallas ended with an embarrassing 5-0 defeat. In three trips to visit Schellas Hyndman’s team, Portland’s been outscored 10-1.
But with both teams making so many improvements since last season, it’s hard to see those lopsided results as precedence. FC Dallas, who missed last year’s playoffs, have the best record in the league, their 6-1-2 mark leaving them six points ahead of the Western Conference’s three-way tie for second place. Within that cluster are the Portland Timbers, who, along with Dallas, are one of team teams yet to be dealt a second loss.
For Dallas, a couple of key additions and some improved health have fueled their hot start. Kenny Cooper was brought back to Texas this offseason, and while it took a while for Hyndman to feel out his best spot, the big striker has adapted to a wide role in Dallas’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Those two holders – Andrew Jacobson and Michel – have been crucial to bolstering a midfield that spent the preseason looking for an identity. Raul Fernandez has also replaced the departed Kevin Hartman at the back, but with playmaker David Ferreira fit and with the team from the get-go, health has been as vital as upgrades for Hyndman.
(This is also where we should mention Jackson, Dallas’s best player through the season’s first two months. But, since I painted myself into a corner with the change and health angles, consider Jackson done wrong.)
For Portland, it’s been all about the upgrades. Ryan Johnson is giving them production they never got from Cooper or Kris Boyd. Will Johnson’s thriving in his new home. Donovan Ricketts is flashing the form most thought he’d lost in Los Angeles, while Diego Valeri is one of the league’s most exciting additions. They’re bringing the best out of holdovers Darlington Nagbe, Diego Chara, and Rodney Wallace, though the team’s biggest upgrade – luring Porter from Akron – deserves credit for their improvements.
In a meeting between two teams much improved over last season, we can afford to discard the past and concentrate and a surprisingly intriguing present. Rather than wonder whether a 10-1 margin can transcend two club’s changes, better to ask if Pederson and Michel can contain the new-look Timbers.
Atlanta United: From scratch to the pitch
Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for MLS Atlanta
“Last Thursday in practice, I was welling up to see the guys in Atlanta training tops with Tata coaching them,” Eales told PST earlier this month. “I’ve had over two years without any games. I hadn’t experienced the highs and lows of why we’re all in this game. Come the fifth of March, it’s going to be a quite an emotional time.”
Not just for Eales, but for an Atlanta market which has proven quite rabid for the sport. United has sold almost 30,000 season tickets, a record for an expansion team.
The excitement isn’t simply a matter of a shiny new toy for sports fans in Georgia. Eales, along with technical director Carlos Bocanegra and manager Tata Martino, have constructed what, at least on paper, could be a monster.
There’s the Designated Player trio of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Hector Villalba, young guys Miles Robinson and Andrew Carleton, MLS mainstays Michael Parkhurst and Tyrone Mears, and Chilean veteran Carlos Carmona.
None of those assets were there when Eales, 44, bought into owner Arthur Blank’s vision in September 2014. And that’s what gave the gig its allure.
“You talk about soccer being a global game, and it’s very rare you get a chance to start a whole new club from scratch,” Eales said. “To do it with an owner like Arthur Blank who is committed to the City of Atlanta, committed to the community, and committed to a winning team just made it an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Eales wasn’t a stranger to America, a former Ivy League Player of the Year from his playing days at Brown University. He later went home to England where he became a director at West Bromwich Albion en route to his executive job at White Hart Lane.
So, yes, the acumen is there. And Eales’ admiration for MLS is a lot higher than many American critics suspect.
“I dealt with MLS from the other side of the fence with Robbie Keane to LA, Jermain Defoe to Toronto, and Clint Dempsey to Seattle,” Eales said. “Fresh perspective when you come from the outside, you look at how teams have built their teams and you can look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.
“The one thing I was clear on from the start, was I felt MLS, globally outside of America, it almost gets more respect from other countries than it does in America. I’ve seen that with players like Simon Dawkins. When I was at Tottenham, we loaned him to San Jose, he developed as a player and we were able to sell him off to Derby. It’s a global league, the standard of football is getting better all the time. I really felt the time was right where you could try to get players in their prime and sell it to them as career development, not a dead end.”
Blank contacted Eales, and convinced him that Atlanta United wasn’t a vanity play. The soccer team wasn’t going to be the Atlanta Falcons’ “little brother”, but a major part of the community.
“Building a roster, putting in the academy, building a training ground, an affiliation with the Charleston Battery, all of these things can’t happen overnight,” Eales said. “There’s been a lot of thoughts and strategy that’s gone into building the roster.”
Not to mention time zones, travel, surfaces, calendar, salary cap, the popularity of other leagues… Eales wanted to find a technical director with both positive vision and MLS wisdom. Enter Carlos Bocanegra, the USMNT captain who had started and finished his playing career in MLS before performing well overseas with Fulham, Rangers, and Rennes.
“What I didn’t want to do was come in from the Premier League and say, ‘Everything European is the way we should do it and Americans don’t know anything about soccer.’ Clearly that’s not the case and I knew that.”
Eales said Bocanegra is a good friend in addition to the perfect man for the job. He added that both men didn’t take long to embrace the city, and that the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl didn’t hurt sports fever in the Peach State.
Now Georgia will turn its attention to the red and black of Atlanta United, a team brimming with talent and experience. One of the early bets for Eales and Bocanegra was that it wouldn’t be about older big names. When asked about the successes of Sebastian Giovinco at Toronto and Nicolas Lodeiro in Seattle, Eales almost bristles at the thought that the moves inspired him. Young and fast was already entrenched in his model.
“It’s been a long time planning,” Eales said. “We were already going down this model. Lodeiro has been fantastic in Seattle and Giovinco is by far and away the best player in the league. He was that first one where someone was taken not over 30 and it showed, despite what the Italian national team manager said at the time, you could come here, play your game and get your career back on track.
“We felt we could go even further was to get those younger players. We’ve got Miguel at 22, Hector at 22, and Josef at 23. You’ll see increasingly now it will be a chance for us as a whole league to bring in top players and get bigger and better, year on year.”
While Eales has not had the fun of match day and won’t really have that experience until March 5’s visit from the Red Bulls, he’s had fun keeping an eye on his last two Premier League clubs and their top half success.
“I have to laugh because I still talk to a lot of my colleagues back at Tottenham and when they say ‘We’re doing well since you left’ I tell them it’s all about building the foundation,” Eales said.
“Chelsea have had a great season but Tottenham with the young squad they’ve got and the manager they’ve got in Mauricio Pochettino, they are going to be titlists in the near future. And West Brom, I love West Brom. It’s a great family club and it’s really exciting to see them solid in the top half of the table. It’s a testament to the guys, Tony Pulis and the team, how they built with a plan year on year to become a solid Premier League club. They have a strategy and they stuck to it.”
So, too, does Eales and United. The roster he’s assembled and his legendary manager combine to give the look of an instant playoff contender.
Yet Eales, like MLS, is going to have to see it. The difference is that United’s president already believes it. Bring on the chills.
“As a spectator it’s so nice to see them. I’m really impressed how good they are.
“Their fullbacks play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders. Their strikers are fighters, Falcao, Germain, they are killers in the box. Both holding midfielders are intelligent, physical, strong. They arrive to the box.
“A complete team. The most successful team in Europe in terms of scoring goals. It’s a tough draw.”
Center back Vincent Kompany is out for the home tie vs. Monaco, and Guardiola has not decided who will start between the sticks.
You may remember Danny Higginbotham from his time as a defender at Sunderland, Stoke City, Derby County, and Southampton, but these days he makes his dough as an analyst.
You almost certainly remember USMNT right back and speed merchant DeAndre Yedlin, though perhaps not seeing him on your television has limited your intake on his progress since leaving Tottenham Hotspur for Newcastle United.
Yedlin’s been very decent for the Magpies, making 23 appearances while providing a goal and five assists. Higginbotham has been impressed, and devoted a good portion of his prematch notes on Newcastle-Aston Villa to the American.
Yedlin plays almost as a right winger at times. He’s the one that gives the width on that side, and he has been a standout player in recent games.
He is so quick, so he can get back with his recovery runs, but it’s what he does with the ball as well. We see him controlling the whole of the right-hand side. He has been so key for Newcastle and he gives them such an attacking threat.
Newcastle will move back atop the Championship with a win over Aston Villa on Monday, and have a five-point lead on third-place Huddersfield Town in the race for an automatic promotion place. Brighton and Hove Albion is first, two points clear of the Magpies.