Scoring goals in soccer is imperative to winning. Goals are an absolute must. Defense wins championships? Not without any goals, it doesn't. The Portland Timbers know this well. They know how important a great forward is, and they know they haven't had one. Great strikers keep teams in games, keep teams in playoff races, and keep teams competitive … things the Timbers weren't last year. Sure, Portland has tried to nab a franchise-altering goal-getter – in fact, the Timbers have closed their eyes and swung for the fences with the acquisition of a striker each offseason until this year. Portland is improved all over the pitch going into the 2013 MLS season under Caleb Porter, but for want of a healthy dose of goals, all the improvements could be for naught.
Since their MLS inception, Gavin Wilkinson has led the Timbers on a wild goose-chase for a prolific forward; stabbing in the dark at players he thought would score the goals that the Timbers desperately need. The team's first answer was Kenny Cooper, who the Timbers selected in the MLS allocation draft for returning US internationals with their top pick – passing on players like Jay DeMerit, Freddy Adu and Benny Feilhaber. But Cooper never had the chance to succeed in Portland – he was set up as the point man in the Timbers attack, and was supposed to keep possession and move the ball, both things Cooper struggles with. Instead of recognizing this and making the requisite adjustments for a player the Timbers invested so much, the team traded Cooper to New York, where he flourished playing in a system that fit his needs. Cooper was allowed to play off Thierry Henry, who created for him, allowing him to do what he is good at – get the ball in the back of the net.
Portland's second answer was a player even more marquee than Cooper – former Rangers star Kris Boyd, the leading scorer in the history of the Scottish Premier League. But Boyd's bad attitude was toxic to his team. Boyd came in out of shape and stayed that way; he wasn't committed to the club and he took MLS too lightly. Boyd barely played for John Spencer, a close friend, and so the chances of him working well with another, less friendly manager were nil. Despite his contract, which was among the top 10 richest in MLS, Boyd didn't want to work hard for the club. He was formally released last week.
Boyd and Cooper are the two biggest names the Timbers have tried up top, but there have been other attempts to find a successful forward that flamed out as well. Jorge Perlaza was brought in from Columbia and allowed to make a bigger and bigger fool of himself each week. The Timbers turned Perlaza – who is now out of the league – into Danny Mwanga, another flame-out, whose skills don't appear to be anywhere near technical enough to hold down a starting job in MLS.
Because he was unbridled with expectations of greatness, Bright Dike has had the longest leash of any MLS Timbers striker. People like the hard-working Dike, and he's being given a shot at the top of the Timbers' strike rotation. But Dike, like Mwanga, doesn't yet have the skills to be a prolific MLS player. Dike tore his ACL for the second time on the Timbers trip to Arizona, and he faces a long road back to the playing field while the Timbers continue to search for an answer up top.
As of today – and, tellingly, Caleb Porter says the Timbers are still looking at trailist forwards. The only strikers on the Timbers 2013 roster are Dike, out indefinitely, Mwanga, who the staff, not surprisingly, isn't high on, Brent Richards, also out indefinitely off major surgery, Sebastian Rincon, a young forward who hasn't made any impact with the Timbers first team, and Caleb Porter's two great hopes for this season, Ryan Johnson and Jose Valencia.
Ryan Johnson was the centerpiece in Portland's offseason trade with Toronto, in which the Timbers gave the Canadian club their first round draft pick plus other pieces. Johnson is a good player – he has speed, technical ability and positional sense – but he has never scored bags of goals; he netted seven times in 31 appearances for Toronto in what was his best season, last year. Johnson, a Jamaican international, steps into Kris Boyd's vacated #9 shirt, and will have to produce his best season at forward this year for the Timbers, even though he may be better suited to play on the wing.
Jose Adolfo Valencia was Gavin Wilkinson's third great stab at striker greatness when he was signed out of the Columbian wilderness last year as a designated player. But Valencia required knee surgery immediately on his arrival with the Timbers; the Columbian club didn't tell Portland of his injury problem, if they knew, and the Timbers didn't have him go through a medical before signing. Valencia missed all of last year; he only made headlines for getting arrested after an argument with his girlfriend.
For two years under Wilkinson, the Timbers were a team without a plan. They signed square pegged players and tried to fit them into round holes. Caleb Porter has a plan – he should, having almost six months to formulate a plan of attack before he actually started work with the Timbers, and he's trying to scrap together a young, tough, and energetic team. But the Timbers aren't convincing this year at the forward position. They have some talent, but no way to know how much talent, or how well the talent will mesh and score goals.
Finding great forwards isn't easy – strikers are the jack-in-the-box type, often enigmatic, not often consistent. The Timbers have been hurt from a lack of goals in both MLS years, and the franchise's psyche has been burned by high-profile misses. But the Timbers will need to solve the forward riddle to win in 2013. The pressure is on Ryan Johnson and Jose Valencia, and the pressure is on the Timbers to get it right up top.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports