Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Two sides on opposite ends of the country, GPS Portland Phoenix and the Portland Timbers U-23s, are the only two PDL sides experiencing the thrill of America’s oldest soccer competition for the first time.
The Phoenix will look to assert themselves on the national stage and write a new chapter in their history. Before they came under the Global Premier Soccer umbrella two years ago, they were two-time PDL champions as the Cape Cod Crusaders and produced multiple players who went on to bigger things. While the titles were nice, it was the development of players that pleased Head Coach and General Manager Paul Baber most.
“Because of the success we’ve had, [with] the Cape Cod Crusader PDL team, we really look after them like trainee-professionals, so we’re a fantastic stepping stone,” Baber said this week. “We don’t see our job as just playing our players at the PDL level. Our job, especially if they’ve been with us a number of years, is to not only develop them on the field, but really it’s to help them, assist them, to inspire them to reach their goals.”
Some of the recent players that have made the step up after playing with the Phoenix include Aaron Schoenfield and Bryan Gaul, who recently signed MLS contracts with the Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy.
But the winning isn’t bad either, and the Phoenix got off to a nice start on Saturday with a 2-1 win against the Vermont Voltage in the PDL’s Northeast Division, which pleased Baber.
“The score line may not necessarily dictate how the game went,” he said. “We were very pleased with our performance. I think it makes a great building block for [today]’s game.”
Today’s game is an encounter at home with two-time Open Cup champions the Brooklyn Italians (8 p.m. ET, Memorial Field). While it has a cup feel for Baber, his approach with three attacking midfielders in a 4-4-2 will not change, though he does acknowledge “it will be close”.
Off the field, as the GM, Baber is aware of the buzz being created by being the first team from Maine to qualify for the Open Cup, and he is pleased with the response by the fans.
“We’re ecstatic. We came to Maine three years ago [and] we think we’ve really impacted the soccer in Maine,” Baber said. “So we’re very proud of the fact to be the first club from Maine. We thank the community for the support we’re getting.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the PDL season, Baber says his team will not be one with a couple of superstars, but rather a team full of solid, versatile players he feels can perform at the next level.
A dominant performance today would certainly begin to prove that.
This is the 99th edition of the US Open Cup, and it kicks off with an expanded format. A major beneficiary of this change has been the PDL’s clubs, with 16 spots now granted to the league. No-one is happier about this than the Portland Timbers U-23s.
Last year, before 5,000 fans at JELD-WEN Field, the Timbers fell 3-2 to the Kitsap Pumas and did not qualify for the Open Cup as a result. That loss accentuated a poor season, just one year after going a perfect 20-0-0 to win the program’s first PDL championship. Head coach Jim Rilatt, who was named PDL Coach of the Year as a result of that remarkable campaign in 2010, is ready to return to winning ways
“It’s not acceptable to have another year like that no matter what the reasons are, and that’s the way it should be,” Rilatt said. “We have to win. If any of these players are fortunate enough to become a Portland Timber MLS player next year, that’s the fans’ standard and they’ll be ready for it.”
The community has shown their support for the team in many ways, and it is made easier through the local talent. Eight players in the squad come from the state of Oregon, and with an academy system coming next season Rilatt promises to add as much local flavor as possible.
Some of that local talent has already stood out, such as midfielder Steve Evans, who impressed in the season-opening 3-0 win against the Fraser Valley Mariners this past Friday. Despite outshooting their opponents 27-7, Rilatt suggested his team caught its opponent “at their preparation stages, more than anything.”
As for today’s game against PSA Elite (7:10 p.m. PT, JELD-WEN Field), he says he is “completely in the dark” about the opponent. “What we do is make sure we focus on us, because we’re still trying to get to know us.”
Other than Cameron Dunn, a former Timbers player who Rilatt enjoyed coaching, scouting the opposition is not possible.
“I’ll shake his hand before the game and wish him all the best, but that’s about it for us. Then we got to go do our thing.”
Their thing usually involves winning, something he says the organization takes extremely seriously. Still, Rilatt says today’s Open Cup encounter is only about one thing.
“It’s great to have our chance at it, we’ve been that close so often,” Rilatt said. “This is really an event for the players. It’s the sacrifice that they make to come here. The PDL season is a grind, the travel schedule, the game schedule, we have to train at 7:30 in the morning so I can get to first team practice and they can go work camp. If you’re a kid with aspirations to play professional soccer, it’s a great opportunity. And I’m excited for them.”
Players such as Jake Gleeson, Ryan Kawulok, and Brent Richards – all graduates from the U-23 program and current MLS Timbers – know all about the opportunity the club offers. Rilatt acknowledges the support he gets from owner Merritt Paulson, and gives it straight back to his players, hoping they take it and run with it.
“I’d like to think these players, they talk to people like Jake, and heard it’s a good situation for them,” he said. “They get a fair shake, and if they do their job, there’s a good set of eyes on them.”
Today’s Open Cup match at JELD-WEN will certainly have more than a few eyes, looking for the talent of tomorrow.