Just like they said they would, the Portland Timbers announced their first four players for the Major League Soccer roster in 2011. Goalkeeper Steve Cronin, midfielder/striker Ryan Pore, and strikers Bright Dike and Eddie Johnson. In short, they named their three best players plus Johnson, who was the best player on the Austin Aztex and acquired on the sly in a trade earlier this season that saw the Timbers loan Johnson back to Austin until the end of the USSF D2 season.
Johnson being named to the MLS team is a surprise, but only in the sense that Johnson being part of the Portland Timbers is a surprise. Apart from that, if you were to ask any fan of the second division which three Portland Timbers could play in MLS, they'd pick Steve Cronin, Ryan Pore, and Bright Dike. Cronin and Pore, of course, already have MLS experience while Dike was a first-round draft pick of the Columbus Crew earlier this year. Pore led the second division in scoring, Dike was among its leaders in goals-per-game, and Cronin is involved in any conversation about its best goalkeepers. Johnson, who happens to be a product of Manchester United, is the only one who there is any doubt can play at least in a depth role at the MLS level.
As Portland's first MLS-related roster news, this is naturally being seized upon by fans and media members alike. Worse, some Vancouver fans are growing antsy that the Whitecaps haven't named any members of their Major League Soccer squad yet. Portland is up 4-0 on us in the all-important "squad members" category! Of course, the Whitecaps only finished their season on Sunday and the players haven't even had time to dry their eyes yet, but no matter. Surely we should see the nucleus of our squad assembled sooner rather than later?
Obviously not every Whitecaps fan (probably not even the majority of them) feels this way. There's no question, though, that the Whitecaps have been reticent to openly name their Major League Soccer players. We know one absolutely for sure (Swiss defender Alain Rochat) and two more new arrivals who are both seasoned professionals that probably have MLS built into their contracts, although of course nobody is openly saying so (midfielders Terry Dunfield and Davide Chiumiento). Beyond that it's guesswork. Meanwhile, Vancouver still hasn't finalized their season ticket structure while the Timbers have been selling season tickets for over a month. That's not a lot of news to chew on. Who can blame the occasional fan for getting antsy? But in this case, there really is nothing for Whitecaps supporters to get excited about.
In reality, this announcement is interesting only so far as it reveals a difference in the approach between Vancouver and Portland. I could name four guys who I can almost promise will be on the MLS roster for you right now: Martin Nash, Jay Nolly, Dunfield, and Chiumiento. You don't think the new guys should count? Okay, then Blake Wagner and Luca Bellisomo: I'm willing to give 90% odds all four of those guys wind up on the Major League Soccer team. Now, where's my press conference?
Portland's announcement of Pore, Dike, and Cronin is indicative of nothing. If Portland was going to take a single player from its USSF D2 team, it was going to take those three. We now know that Portland isn't completely tearing down the team, but there was no reason to believe earlier that either they would or that they should. From a soccer standpoint, there was nothing to chew on beyond the acquisition of a 26-year-old striker who surely could never be more than a bench player in Major League Soccer. This was a public relations stunt, pure and simple, and with Timbers season tickets supposedly selling very well it's hard to see what they need a public relations stunt for.
Perhaps the Timbers simply want to shake the charge of complacency. While Vancouver has been bringing in every promising player under the sun to have a go in league games, Portland has stuck to their roster all season long apart from signing Dike and a few minor moves that didn't matter in the second division and surely won't matter in MLS. Portland ignored preparation for 2011 and concentrated on winning in 2010, before suffering the indignity of a playoff defeat from the very team they'll be competing with next season. Portland fans have watched their rivals in Vancouver sacrifice the present for the future, while they ignored the future and concentrated on today, then got beat anyway. That can't help but lead to tough questions about how the Timbers are coming into Major League Soccer and whether they'll be as prepared as possible. Announcing four players, none of whom are spectacular and only one of whom is any sort of surprise, over a month before the expansion draft reeks of trying to tell your fans "see? We're doing something! We've decided that our good players are good!"
So that's why I'm happy the Whitecaps haven't followed suit: because I'm happy the Whitecaps are above such stunts. I fully expect that Tom Soehn and Teitur Thordarson are working on their list and have a few names written in very dark pencil. Unlike Portland, they've already begun the process of evaluating new talent and found a few players who are certainly MLS-worthy, not to mention a few that are not. They're also giving themselves an iota more flexibility: if they signed Jay Nolly to an MLS contract before they had to and he blew out his knee two days later, or if a superior goalkeeper came available in the expansion draft, that wouldn't help anybody. The chance of that happening might be one in a thousand, but I don't want to see my team taking a one in a thousand chance at hurting the club for the sake of a press conference.
I understand that the Timbers' front office had to set minds at ease and make it clear they're getting their jobs done. But these sorts of empty gestures raise more questions about their competence than they answer.