Kalif Alhassan has emerged as the story of preseason for me, in a playing sense at least. It’s hugely encouraging to see the likes of Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Dylan Tucker-Gangnes being given ample playing time, and a hat-trick against San Jose was a perfect way for Ryan Johnson to take his first bow before the Timbers Army. Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, Ryan Miller and Diego Valeri have come in and look to have improved the team in key areas.
I don’t think Ryan Johnson or Valeri have made the biggest splash this preseason. With Valeri I think it’s because my sense of relief that he’s as good as we dared hope has overshadowed the fact that he’s been really pretty good. Having gone so long without a creative attacking midfielder, I was worried that when we did finally sign one, he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, live up to two largely miserable seasons’ worth of pent-up expectation, but there are signs enough that Valeri will, though any verdict in that regard could only be taken in the winter, and certainly not before a competitive ball is kicked.
Alhassan has been a source of frustration thus far in his MLS career. The flashes of undoubted talent we’ve seen from the Ghanaian only serve to underline the myriad times when he’s seemed too lightweight and utterly inconsequential to the outcome of a match. His 2012 season was beset by injuries, and I wondered whether his presence on the roster was going to be one indulgence too far for the Timbers.
As it was the similar, in both style and effectiveness, Franck Songo’o who wouldn’t be returning to Portland, not even, it would seem, to the visiting locker room. A victim of increased demands, and a perceived lack of value for that not insubstantial outlay, Songo’o has gone and, with his untidy departure, Alhassan had one more obstacle to playing time cleared away.
Alhassan was promoted from the presumably lesser regarded “second half team” in Tuscon, just in time to help the Timbers to victory against Seattle in the third match. He was still in the starting XI when the Timbers played their first home game of the preseason, providing a pin point cross for Ryan Johnson’s first goal, reminiscent of another cross almost a year ago that served to introduce Kris Boyd to the Timbers faithful.
He sat out the second match against FC Dallas, as a largely second string team lost by a single goal, but played the full 90 against AIK in a line-up that will, with a couple of tweaks, likely be the team that takes the field in front a full house against New York on Sunday.
2013 is a big season for Alhassan. His raw talent has got him this far, but if he wants to develop into a top-flight player, he has to start showing more consistency into both fitness and form. In his favour, he’s still only 22, something that can easily be forgotten as his status as one of the few who span the USL and MLS eras, albeit briefly, would seem to mark him out as one of the old guard.
This offseason has seen Porter concentrate on bringing in experienced, established players, filling the vacuum left by an outgoing of the largely disappointing and under-used. There are still prospects in the side to look out for. Tucker-Gangnes looks like one who has all the tools to make it at this level, especially if he can glean as much as he can from the top-level experience of Mikael Silvestre while they share a pitch. Darlington Nagbe continues to promise so much, and if he can find a groove with his old coach Caleb Porter, it could prove very beneficial to the Timbers play-off hopes. Jean-Baptiste, Steven Evans, Jose Adolfo Valencia; all can probably look forward to more game time in 2013 with which to flourish.
Alhassan joins this group of young players who will seek to benefit from working with coach Porter, with early signs that Kalif is currently best placed to make early strides towards fulfilling his potential in a system that makes more sense of Alhassan’s talents than any other has thus far.
He often found himself stuck out on the flanks under John Spencer. It’s a move that makes sense as Kalif can cross as well as, if not better than, anyone at the club and his close control allows him to escape from positions that other players couldn’t. Yet, he never really fit out there, peripheral in every respect, and lacking the desire to put in the required defensive shift he often left the poor sap behind him cruelly exposed.
When he did drift inside, as he was predisposed to do, it unbalanced a team that was built on a “traditional” British style, that expected things in as direct and functional a manner as possible. The “get it wide, throw it into the box” approach of 2011 and much of 2012 simply wasn’t suited to a roaming wide midfielder, so rather than be the guy the club could depend upon to provide a touch of magic in the final third when needed, racking up both assists and goals, both he and Songo’o more often became the place where attacks went to die, running themselves into dead ends, and trying too hard to do too much alone.
Though he’s been mostly played wide under Porter, the change is that his movement and roaming are now absolutely a part of the plan rather than counter to it, and integral to both his and the club’s success this season. Though it’s clear that Valeri will be expected to do much of the heavy lifting in the creative sense, it would be foolish to lay all our hopes at his feet as other teams would get wise to that very early on, and set about negating his influence by fair means or foul. The movement and spontaneity of Alhassan, and Nagbe for that matter, are crucial in giving opponent’s something else to think about, and keeping the Timbers attack from becoming too predictable and two-dimensional.
Alhassan stands a good chance of the being the only player who took the field in Portland’s first MLS match to line up at the start of their third season. The fact he’s shown such staying power despite never really holding down a first team spot for any great length of time shows that his ability is clearly held in high regard by the Timbers coaching staff, but now it’s time for Kalif to start rewarding that patience with tangible, on-field returns.