The affection was obvious, but even more obvious was the adulation Saturday night as former Portland Timbers goalkeeper Troy Perkins came to Jeld-Wen Field for the first time since his summer 2012 trade to the Montreal Impact. Appreciation echoed all around Jeld-Wen when Perkins' name was announced with the Montreal starting lineup, and thundered from the Timbers Army when Perkins went before their goal for the first time before the start of the second half, and emanated again from the Army at the end of the game. The returning hero played his part his part well in the Impact's 2-1 victory over the Timbers, and it's possible that Perkins left Portland after his first trip as an opposition player with more love than he had before he was traded in the first place.
Donovan Ricketts, on the other hand, let in two goals in the loss, and the reception and vibe around the hulking Jamaican was considerably chillier than the goodwill experienced by the man he replaced in between the sticks in the Rose City. Ricketts has only been Portland's goalkeeper for 14 MLS games, performed mostly non-decrepitly, and has said nothing to alienate anyone at the club – yet the Perkins for Ricketts trade last August is considered by most Timbers fans to be the worst trade in the club's history. Why?
Ricketts, despite the grumbles, is nowhere near as bad as people think he is. A commanding and intimidating presence in goal, Ricketts is a superb shot-stopper, and even at 35, has his agility and ability to cover the goal fully intact. At 6'5, Ricketts is physically able to get to shots and crosses many goalkeepers, including the slim, 6'0 foot Perkins, can't reach. At his best, Ricketts represents an overpowering grizzly bear in net – one US Soccer writer told me that Ricketts is the most physically dominant player, at any position, in CONCACAF history.
That's not to saw Ricketts doesn't have his flaws. Generally, Ricketts hasn't communicated well with his back-line, evidenced in the first-half defensive capitulation against New York, and a lurking factor Saturday against Montreal as well. In contrast with Perkins, Ricketts doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve – rather, the Timbers 'keeper is a quiet, religious, family man, regardless of what his overbearing frame might suggest.
One of the fears with Ricketts coming to Portland – and the biggest argument against trading Perkins for him – was that Ricketts, the 2010 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year with LA, is rapidly advancing in age. When the Impact traded Ricketts, the Jamaican was having his worst MLS season and showing signs that his career was on the downswing. But in Portland, a rejuvenated Ricketts has shown no wear and tear, and, per goals-per-game, has performed much better than Perkins did with the Timbers. In 2012, when they both had stints in Portland, Ricketts' 1.4 goals-a-game average bested Perkins average of 1.6, and Ricketts didn't allow the kind of astronomical thrashings of four and five goals that Perkins allowed in Portland.
Ricketts is breaking in an entirely knew back-line in 2013, and that is extremely difficult to do for any goalkeeper on any team, but especially 'keeper playing at Jeld-Wen Field, where noise makes communication harder. Four of the five goals Ricketts has let in this year have been in front of the roaring Army – one was on a bicycle, and one was a mistake from Mikael Silvestre. Ricketts has made some sterling saves already this year, and has saved the blushes of dire defending many times during his stay in Portland. Ricketts can be a pilot in the back for Portland – he is, after-all, the vice-captain of his national team, and when Gavin Wilkinson said in the aftermath of the trade last summer that the Timbers were upgrading at the goalkeeper position, he might have been on the mark.
But that brings us to the most divisive and misunderstood part of Ricketts' tenure in Portland. When Perkins was swapped for Ricketts, the Timbers' very-own tyrant Gavin Wilkinson was in charge of the club, occupying the manager's office, as well as the general manager's quarters, and apparently running around Portland running the Timbers unopposed. It has been speculated that Perkins was jettisoned because he was a vocal leader who disagreed with the direction of the club – read, Wilkinson – and whether or not that's true – Perkins has remained bitter and embattled against the Timbers' leadership – Caleb Porter, long settled upon as the next manager of the club, was on board with the move.
Porter is the man who has revamped the Timbers with an eye for talent that has so far been unerring, and why are we to think that he was wrong on Perkins for Ricketts? If it's in Porter we trust, forget the erroneous Wilkinson, we must trust the most unpopular trade in club history to be a good one.
I love Troy Perkins for all the same reasons that every other Timbers fan loved the man. Perkins was full of heart, pride, and highlight-reel saves during his time in Portland. He was a leader, he loved the city, was raising his family here, and he established himself a likable player on a team without many likable characters. Perkins as a martyr of the Wilkinson regime, though? Not quite. And we have to realize that Perkins wasn't all that spectacular in goal either. For all of his great stops, he let in too many soft goals, spilled too many balls, and with Perkins, when it rained, it poured multiple goals. Perkins' distribution was spotty, and his on-field bravery helped mask that off the field, as he has been his whole career, Perkins was extremely moody.
No, Gavin Wilkinson, as is typical, lacked class after the trade, and it was hard to see Perkins go, especially after he said he wanted to retire a Timber. But Troy Perkins, a catastrophe in his last season with DC United, a failure in Europe, is not Iker Casillas.
I cheered Troy Perkins on Saturday. I'm happy he's doing well. And I don't think he should have been traded, if for no other reason than that he is four years younger than Donovan Ricketts. But Ricketts has outperformed expectations in his short time with the Timbers, and he'll continue to get better. It's not doubtable that Ricketts is much more highly regarded outside of Portland than he is inside the city. The goalkeeper, the one man in net, the last line of defense, the one special player who gets to use his hands and isn’t judged on the same set on criteria as every other player on the field is always likely to draw debate. That’s natural. And debate will rage. But you have to think that hearing “Ricketts” chanted before, during and after a game would do a world of good for the current goalkeeper’s comfort and confidence.
It's time to move onto to Timbers 2.0, Caleb Porter's team, and get behind Caleb Porter's goalkeeper. Like it or not, Donovan Ricketts is a better goalkeeper than the beloved Troy Perkins.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports