July 29th, 2012 by Michael Orr
“I think if we’re going to continue to talk about potential, and continue to talk about our young players, they need to be given a chance. So for Brent, this is his first start with what we’re looking at in MLS. So hopefully he’ll take the challenge and do well. It’s not a matter of me trying to surprise people with his selection. He’s got a big up side and I think he’ll do well…I think you always have to reward good habits. He’s a player that’s trained extremely, extremely well and deserves the opportunity.”
So said interim manager and technical director Gavin Wilkinson after training on Friday, hinting at Brent Richards’ first MLS start. Last night, Richards did indeed start, playing seventy-four minutes before making way for Eric Alexander. While the game was not Richards’ MLS debut (that came in the Timbers’ 5-3 loss to LA Galaxy on July 14), it was the first ever starting XI appearance by a Portland Home Grown Player.
First, the game. Then the longer-term implications.
Despite Wilkinson’s advance warning, Richards’ inclusion in the starting line-up still came as a surprise to most. Having played sixty-nine minutes against Aston Villa on Tuesday night, asking for another extended performance just four nights later would have been a serious request, regardless of the player in question. Yet Wilkinson crafted his supposedly new formation – “We played with three up top, an honest three up top.” – to best take advantage of Richards’ unique skill set.
Apart from those who attended Timbers U23 matches in years past, the first most fans got to see the leaping ability and quality of headed service from Richards came when he was inserted as a second half substitute in the ill-fated US Open Cup loss to Cal FC in May. Though none of his headers led to a goal, his combination of quick feet and powerful headers impressed the small crowd. It’s taken two months for Richards to be an active part of the first team again, despite several short substitute appearances in league matches throughout July. Last night, for the first time, not only were his headers an added benefit to his inclusion on the field, Richards was a key component of the offensive game plan.
After the game, the 22-year old noted that providing service to his head, not just from the run of play but on goal kicks and free kicks as well, was a specific emphasis in training all week. “We were hoping that would get us a few more chances that we could put away, but they didn’t come,” he said after the game. Though perhaps his aerial abilities would have been even more useful in John Spencer’s regime, Richards played a key role in creating opportunities for the Timbers against Chivas USA. Time and again, Troy Perkins sent his goal kicks down the right flank where Richards could nod the ball on either toward Kris Boyd or an onrushing Diego Chará or Darlington Nagbe. When Richards was able to cut into the middle without the ball, left midfielder Franck Songo’o provided him chances, both in the air and on the ground.
The best chance for Richards came in the twenty-sixth minute when Songo’o slipped to the byline, fed the ball back across goal away from Dan Kennedy and directly into Richards’ path. Darting in from the right wing, Richards cut in front of Nagbe and took the shot on his first touch. “Instead of blasting it with my left foot I tried to do an inside of the foot shot and it went just wide. I didn’t hit it quite like I wanted to. But it was a perfect ball from Franck and that should be put away,” Richards explained after the game.
Thirteen minutes later, Richards got another shot off, this one on target. “The coaches are pretty happy with how well I’m striking balls so they’re telling me if I get into those situations to just take my best shot and get it on target. That’s what I needed to do, and I did it, but I didn’t get it away from Kennedy,” he explained in the locker room. The shot was certainly a sign of the kinds of strikes he can produce, even if the save was fairly routine for Kennedy. In fairness to Richards, at least the shot hit the target on a night when that could not often be said for his offensive-minded teammates.
Overall, Richards’ impact on the Chivas game was noteworthy, despite many of his headed attempts failing to reach his teammates. Surely Chivas could not have predicted he would start and it did take the better part of an hour for the Goats to adjust to the aerial threat Richards provided. Wilkinson has said that younger players could see more time with the first team as this disaster of a season progresses. On Friday, the interim manager said, “Should [young players] continue to work hard, should they continue to make developments – good developments – in training, we will give them the opportunity.” Richards is the first of the young players not already part of the usual starting group (mostly meaning Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan) to get that opportunity. Surely he will regret the results of his two best chances on the ball last night, but in a season where so much else has gone wrong, the Timbers can at least feel good about the decision to bring Richards into the club.
In the longer-term, of course, Richards’ Home Grown Player status is the first step in what the Timbers will hope is a fruitful effort to develop local youth. Without an academy fully in operation, Portland is behind other MLS clubs in the ability to provide players for themselves. Richards was a special case, having played at Eastside United as a youngster, a club that somewhat retroactively is considered part of the Timbers’ youth network. In the future, players who have graduated from Portland’s proper academy system, having grown up within the club, will populate the first team roster.
Yet the first step is providing real opportunities to players with such status. The benefit of keeping a Home Grown Player off the salary cap is a benefit to overall team budgetary concerns, but filling roster spots with players who never actually appear in the first team does not necessarily make for a good allocation of roster space. That Richards not only debuted in this his rookie season, but has earned a start within the first five months of the season, is vital to the notion that young players with this special designation can indeed be an active part of the team.
While Richards’ starting debut ended with a great deal of disappointment, particularly regarding the overall result, it does also provide great promise. Perhaps he will never be the star of the team, but taking advantage of his opportunity to feature in a starting role is an important first step for Richards. As the Timbers continue to bungle their way through this 2012 season, perhaps it will only be the first of several noteworthy debuts.