In August of 2012, the Timbers’ cupboard looked bare. John Spencer had been fired, the club was mired in the midst of a horrible run of play, and any young talent the Timbers once had was showing little sign of developing into anything but unfulfilled potential. Then, against Dallas on August 5th, Bright Dike came back from a loan to the L.A. Blues and entered into the game in the 61st minute. Two weeks later, he notched his first goal of the year in a heartbreaking loss at New York, and starting a torrid finishing stretch in which Dike found the net fives times in eleven appearances.
More important than Dike’s five goals in eleven largely meaningless games, however, was the hope he injected into the Timbers’ future. If nothing else, the cupboard now held a bull-in-a-china-closet striker who might just be the answer to the Timbers’ chronic goal-scoring problems.
It came as a shock, then, when an early Monday morning tweet from Bright Dike revealed that he was being shipped out of town. His reputation built by an endearing personality, sterling hard work, and significant contributions to the first team, Dike had made himself one of the most popular Timbers to grace the Rose City in the last four years.
So it’s understandable that the first reaction to Dike’s departure was disappointment and confusion. More shocking that Bright’s departure, however, was what the Timbers garnered in return.
Later in the morning, it was leaked that the Timbers received Maxi Urruti, a highly rated 22-year-old Argentine forward signed by Toronto FC less than a month ago for Dike, a 2015 draft pick, and allocation money.
The promising Argentine youngster’s arrival shines a light on the most positive development in Portland’s roster structure – the abundance of already-good but high-upside young talent on a roster loaded with still-in-their-prime veteran leadership. And it also provides yet another checkpoint on the Timbers’ yearlong journey from borderline hopelessness to undeniable promise.
Alvas Powell, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Kalif Alhassan, Darlington Nagbe, Jose Valencia, Maxi Urruti. Those six men have two things in common. One, they presently – or, in Urruti’s case, are expected to presently – contribute meaningfully to a contending MLS team. Two, they’re all 23-years-old or younger.
Looking around MLS, there isn’t anther club with the Timbers’ volume of young players showing considerable present value.
But more important than Portland’s upside, is the club’s capacity to develop it. All the talent in the footballing world doesn’t make any difference if a club isn’t set up to make it flower on the field. And over the course of the last year, the Timbers have assembled a formidable structure to develop their young talent.
From Will Johnson, to Diego Valeri, to Diego Chara, to Jack Jewsbury, to Futty, to Mikael Silvestre, to Frederic Piquionne, to David Horst, to Pa Modou Kah, to Ryan Johnson, the Timbers have veterans leading the way across the field, giving the Rose City youngsters a gaggle of role models to incubate their development. Moreover, the most prominent of these veterans are near the beginning of their prime, with the Diegos and Will Johnson all 27 years or younger.
In addition to the leadership on the field, the Timbers’ recent coaching hires have added considerable young player development experience, with Sean McCauley previously running the academy at Sheffield Wednesday and Caleb Porter leading the most successful men’s collegiate soccer program in America.
The Timbers’ structure – much of which has been built in the past twelve months – is constructed according to a master plan that not only permits winning in the short term, but also sets the table to continue to be successful down the road by investing heavily in youthful players loaded with potential.
And over the course of 2013, we’ve seen a lot of this potential turn into product on the field. Andrew Jean-Baptiste has gone from an emergency option at center back at the beginning of 2012 to a guy whose name gets bandied about as a future option for the National Team. In 2013, Jose Valencia has transformed from a reluctant passer looking lost in the Timbers’ system to a player capable of putting in one of the best outings of any Timbers forward this year, as he registered against Toronto FC. Darlington Nagbe has evolved from a player who looks like he could terrorize opposing midfields into an attacker who does terrorize opposing midfields. Even Kalif Alhassan has emerged from the edge of being a lost cause under John Spencer to a much more intelligent, versatile midfielder who shows signs of being a capable finisher.
The Timbers’ stockpile of young talent, then, is already paying dividends and looks to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Dike’s trade, while emotional in light of the loss of a good player and person, is indicative of the success the Timbers have had in the past year of turning Dike’s glimmer of 2012 hope into a roster structured to shine for years to come.
Onward, Rose City.
 The Timbers collection and development of young talent has clearly been a central pillar of their rebuilding strategy over the past year, and looks to remain so in the future. Whether, in the current and future state of MLS, this is the best guiding philosophy for a club is a question deserving of considerable scrutiny.
 Perhaps more surprising than Kalif’s recent finishing was his performance in Seattle, where he spent considerable time playing a defensive role in midfield. The idea of Alhassan as a capable – if perhaps not ideal – defensive central midfielder would have been beyond absurd a year ago.