sports 2 days ago

Portland Timbers' diverse roster finds unity on the field

The Oregonian — Jamie Goldberg The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

April 20--The Portland Timbers walked onto the field on opening day with players representing 10 different countries featured in their starting lineup.

Among the starting 11 were Liam Ridgewell who spent his youth career in the academy system in England, Fanendo Adi who grew up playing soccer barefoot in the streets in Nigeria and Darlington Nagbe who fell in love with the beautiful game in Ohio after escaping a war zone in Liberia as an infant.

"I enjoy having guys from different cultures," Timbers coach Caleb Porter said. "Those individual qualities and talents, that's what makes each player unique. But they also have to fit into a team to win games and you also have to get guys in sync with each other."

A growing number of international players have flocked to MLS in recent years and the league welcomed a new influx of talent from abroad in the offseason. At the start of the 2017 season, there were players from 67 different countries competing in MLS and just 42.1 percent of the league's players were born in the United States, down from 51.2 percent in 2014.

But no team in MLS had a more diverse lineup on opening day than the Timbers.

Portland's starting 11 included four players from Latin America, two players from Africa, two players from Europe, a player from Jamaica, a player from New Zealand and one American in Nagbe, who was born in Liberia, but received his U.S. citizenship in 2015. The Timbers' full roster includes players from 11 different countries.

"When I came here I noticed that immediately, so many guys from different places," Timbers Costa Rican defender Roy Miller said. "But the commitment with all the guys here is great. Everyone has a different culture. We always respect that, but in the locker room and the games, we're like family."

While there are certainly challenges with melding together such an international group, the Timbers came together quickly as a team this season and have found immediate success on the field. Portland is off to its best start since joining MLS and currently sits in first place in the Western Conference standings after seven games.

Seven of Portland's starters have been with the team since at least 2014 and the consistency in the group has clearly been an asset in enabling the international club to develop chemistry. While there are certainly distinct groups and cliques in the locker room, the team has a handful of bilingual players -- among them Diego Valeri and Diego Chara -- who have taken over the role of interpreters on and off the field and can help bridge the gap between the English and Spanish-speaking players.

Porter has also left nothing up to chance this season and has been taking proactive steps to promote bonding within the team, scheduling group activities in preseason and creating a leadership council to get weekly input from five representatives on the roster.

The players have also created their own "fine wheel" this year, which has turned into a light-hearted way to hold the group accountable while bringing everyone together off the field for some good-natured banter.

If the players decide that one of their teammates is deserving of a fine -- for something like showing up a few minutes late to practice or the team bus -- that player has to spin the wheel. He could end up having to bring in food for his teammates, do something comical or pay a small fine -- which goes into a pot that the players can then spend on themselves at the end of the season. Timbers winger Jack Barmby had to come to practice one day in a suit and tie and went all out by donning an American flag-themed suit.

"That's one of the biggest things because everyone kind of gets involved in that," Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson said. "You can joke around with these guys. It's huge because it boosts morale. It's a good environment and a good atmosphere and everyone is getting along really well."

But the biggest thing that bonds the club together is still soccer.

While many of the players come from different backgrounds, their experiences growing up with the game are similar and a shared passion for the sport has brought the eclectic group together for a common cause.

"I'm from Africa, other guys are from Jamaica, you have the guys from Argentina, all these places are places where kids grow up with strong mentalities playing soccer," Timbers forward Fanendo Adi said. "That brings us together. Of course, everyone thinks differently and has a different mentality, but when we're on the pitch, everyone wants one thing and that one thing is to win and that's all that matters."

-- Jamie Goldberg -- jgoldberg@oregonian.com

503-853-3761 -- @jamiebgoldberg

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