The Akron Timbers are coming together. College players and college fans allow themselves to wonder or dream what a college team would look like – all grown up, playing together in the pros.
Well, if you like the Zips and the PTFC, you’re in seventh heaven. Portland’s newest player, most likely newest starter, is the club’s second former MLS Sounder and a man who clearly belongs in the Rose City instead of up north.
This move made too much sense the minute Steve Zakuani’s name was placed on the MLS Re-Entry Draft list. And so, after a series of maneuvers, the Timbers got their man.
Portland selected the Akron winger and former MLS #1 Draft Pick with the second pick of the Re-Entry Draft, a selection process for players who are out of contract with their current MLS team.
To get that second pick, Portland traded their #17th pick and center back Andrew Jean-Baptiste for Chivas USA. The Timbers also got handyman defender Jorge Villafaña, who started every game for Porter’s US U-23’s at left back, in the trade.
Shortly following the trade and subsequent selection of Zakuani was the long-suspected news that Rodney Wallace tore his ACL against Real Salt Lake in the last game of the 2013 season.
Wallace had successful reconstructive surgery last week, and will be out 5-7 months, putting the Costa Rica international’s World Cup dreams in grave danger. The Timbers withheld the news of Wallace’s injury so as to not alert the rest of the league that they needed a winger, therefore driving the price of any potential trade up.
Oh, and by the way – the team announced in an official press conference at Adidas that Bayern Munich is coming to the Rose City to play against the MLS All-Stars in August 2014.
It was a whirlwind of a day that leaves a lot to digest.
First off – Zakuani. He was Seattle’s number one overall pick before their maiden season in 2009, and set the league alight with his speed and direct, dangerous attacking play. You would say Zakuani bled Rave Green as much as anyone, but it became clear as his college team held a permanent reunion in Portland that he was on the wrong side of the war.
Zakuani provides the Timbers with the type of wing play that they had been missing in 2013. In fact, the Timbers have never had a true wide player as dangerous as Zakuani, who is both a good crosser and finisher.
With Wallace out until at least the middle of the season, he figures to slide into the starting lineup.
Zakuani is a mouth-watering talent who is now reunited with his college coach Caleb Porter, for whom he scored 20 goals in 23 games in his last season in college. Zakuani will also play on the same line as his best friend Darlington Nagbe.
Three years ago, Zakuani was one of the top young players in MLS. In his sophomore season in Seattle, Zakuani led the team in goals with 10 and tallied a further six assists. But in 2011, Zakuani suffered a horror leg break in one of the most ugly tackles in MLS history from Colorado Rapids midfielder Brian Mullen.
Zakuani didn’t play for 14 months, and much of his 2013 season was taken away by a sports hernia injury.
He’s fit now, though, and Caleb Porter has a new dimension in the attack. Zakuani’s ability to take on players one v. one and stretch the field horizontally and vertically with speed should provide space for the Diego Valeri’s of the world to create in the middle of the park.
Zakuani can also play up top, and give the Timbers a second forward on the field if need be.
If he’s healthy – and that’s the biggest question mark with this move – Portland just got a thrilling player to watch, and one that fits into this team perfectly. A positive aside: This is a tough pill to swallow for Sounders fans. Zakuani was a Seattle original and player and fan-base went through a lot together.
Unlike the Timbers’ last gamble on a former #1 pick – Danny Mwanga – Zakuani’s ability has been obvious from the get-go in the top flight. This signing could be an absolute slam-dunk for the Timbers.
Zakuani is a well-known entity. The other player Portland acquired today, Jorge Villafaña, isn’t.
In part, that’s because Villafaña has spent his entire pro career at lawsuit-riddle, comedy act Chivas USA, and in part because Villafaña is a utility player who is predominantly a left-back and can also play in the holding midfield.
But Villafaña is another former charge of Porter’s and he’s a player the coach trusts from his time with the U-23’s – and needless to say, Porter wouldn’t be eager to work with few of the players who failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics again.
Villafaña is good cover for Michael Harrington, but he enjoyed arguably his best MLS season last year, starting 20 games.
It’s Andrew Jean-Baptiste who made way for all of this to happen.
AJB’s eventual departure was always imminant. Despite clear natural ability, Porter was fed up with Jean-Baptiste’s lack of focus and attitude, and felt that he simply couldn’t trust him on the backline.
Going into next season, Jean-Baptiste would have been fourth or even fifth on the center-back depth chart. The point that Jean-Baptiste was dropped, ironically, was after dismal 1-1 draw at Chivas, his new team. He didn’t play another minute of the 2013 season.
Still, AJB’s greatest Timbers contribution – his stoppage time winner at Jeld-Wen Field against the LA Galaxy last summer – will live forever.
The loss of Rodney Wallace is a tough one. ACL injuries are serious, and this one comes just as Wallace’s career was taking off. If all goes well during recovery, he’ll be back this summer.
It was a whirlwind of a day in the Rose City. Steve Zakuani now works for the Portland Timbers. March 8th cannot come fast enough.