Who Will Be Portland’s Goalkeeper?

Staying with Ricketts is easy, but age, Gleeson, expansion factor into decisions
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, November 14, 2014

Green Logs - a column on the Portland Timbers & the Portland soccer scene

Of all the positions that the Portland Timbers have to work on improving in 2015, one may end up being the most difficult.

That’s because the easy decision, staying with the incumbent, is also the short-term, hope-nothing-major-happens decision.

The position in question is goalkeeper, and it’s a position that’s been the domain of one person for the last 2 seasons. It’s also a position that has crucial questions attached to it.

Does the team continue to ride 37-year-old Donovan Ricketts as long as possible? Do they give Jake Gleeson more time with the first team? Is Andrew Weber done as a Timber? Could they think about bringing another, younger keeper in? The answers to these questions are as important as shoring up the leaky defense.

Ricketts has been the rock behind a very questionable defense over the past two seasons, and has been able to make crucial saves that covered up glaring mistakes by the back line. He was a major reason behind Portland’s meteoric rise in 2013, and was rewarded by being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.

However, he wasn’t able to cover as many defensive blunders in 2014 as he was in 2013, and that was a big reason why the Timbers ended up with 52 goals against, the sixth worst in MLS. Ricketts himself gave up 44 in 32 matches, a big increase from 2013, when he gave up just 31 goals. He also had just 7 shutouts in 2014, half the number he had in 2013 (14).

But his 2014 record of 12-7-12 isn’t far off from his 2013 record of 13-5-14. He also finished the season with a 304-minute shutout streak. He also made spectacular saves on numerous occasions that allowed Portland to get vital points in their playoff push.

The easy decision on the Portland GK situation is to stick with Ricketts. But he is 37, and how much he has left will, assuming he’s the starter at the beginning of the season, have a major impact on how the Timbers will place in the Western Conference standings. With Sporting Kansas City and Houston back in the West, the task has become extremely tough.

Making this a more interesting decision is the rise of Jake Gleeson. Though he still hasn’t played an MLS match since 2011, his large role in helping Sacramento win the USL Pro title in their first season can’t be ignored. Caleb Porter used Gleeson in the final two CONCACAF Champions League matches, and while he had little to do in the home match against Alpha United, the defense let him down in the loss at Olimpia that knocked the Timbers out of the CCL.

Porter has said that Gleeson is the #2 goalkeeper in Portland now, and because he did so well in Sacramento, the point may have been reached where the Timbers must use Gleeson to take a bigger role in MLS and, maybe, play significant minutes to help keep Ricketts fresh. It also wouldn’t be surprising if other MLS clubs have inquired about Gleeson, as his work in Sacramento likely impressed many teams.

The wild card in this may be the expansion draft on December 10. One would assume that the Timbers would protect Ricketts and expose Gleeson, but that also would be a big risk. New York City FC or Orlando City could easily take Gleeson, either for themselves or as part of a pick-and-trade deal with another team. Would Wilkinson and Porter want to take the chance of losing Gleeson? Would they protect Gleeson and initially expose Ricketts, thinking that his age might keep NYCFC and OCSC away? That’s a big decision to be made.

One player that likely won’t be back with the Timbers in 2015 is Andrew Weber. He was the primary keeper in the US Open Cup matches and the first two CCL games, but his mistake on Olimpia’s second goal in Portland ended up being the difference between the Timbers advancing and staying home. He also started two matches when Ricketts was injured and serving a red card suspension, losing at FC Dallas on March 29, then playing in the disastrous 4-4 draw with Seattle on April 4.

While Weber played decently in the US Open Cup, his chances at getting into an MLS match diminished as long as Ricketts stayed healthy. Gleeson’s play in Sacramento also meant that it was only a matter of time before he would become Ricketts’ backup, and the gaffe in the home CCL match against Olimpia sealed Weber’s fate. While no official decision has been made on Weber, it would be a surprise if he’s back in 2015.

What about pursuing other MLS keepers? Outside of getting Dan Kennedy in the Chivas USA dispersal draft, there’s not much out there. The teams that had two keepers play 10 games each included Dallas, Montréal, Kansas City and Houston. While Wilkinson has pulled off a GK-for-GK trade before (sending starting keeper Troy Perkins to the Impact for Ricketts in 2012), there’s not much of a market for a similar trade right now. The market outside of MLS isn’t much better, at this point, unless a big surprise is pulled off.

The needs on defense and on the wing may be more immediate for the Timbers, but the decisions made at goalkeeper are crucial. Whether the decision is to continue to rely on Ricketts, give Gleeson a chance, lose one in the expansion draft or another path, it’s vital that Wilkinson and Porter get this one right.

NEXT UP: January 31 – Portland Timbers vs. Sporting Kansas City, Kino North Stadium, Tucson, Ariz. 8:00 p.m. EST, TBA.

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
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