By Jacob Klinger
MLS is three and a half years removed from signing its first Home Grown player under the new league rules that finally gave clubs a competitive incentive to develop their own talent. This summer Jacob Klinger will be checking in on Home Grown players from across the league to see who they are, what they're doing, how they got there, and of course, just what it is they'll be doing next.
Fresh off of a stellar youth career at Eastside United, Oregon ODP, four years of college ball and six months into his professional career, Brent Richards, 22, has yet to settle into a position in the Portland Timbers' first team.
He came up as a striker, but lately John Spencer has preferred to deploy him on the wing. There, a player who, by his own admission, is lacking in ball control and relies on his speed and general athleticism, is having to learn the pro game from a whole new perspective. Though he tallied 31 goals and 15 assists for the Washington Huskies before getting himself 26 goals and 12 assists in 37 games with the Timbers Under-23 team, none of that matters now. Richards' first touch is not where it needs to be. In fact, he has plenty of catching up to do.
His self-description evokes thoughts of the American player of yesteryear. But Richards is the first Home Grown player for the Timbers, a club with a diagnosably passionate fan base in a town that truly "gets" soccer. Still, falling through the well-documented cracks of collegiate soccer could have been done with ease.
Richards is not some polished product of a vertically integrated, top-down player development system. Yet he hardly fits the mold of the technically deficient throwback kick-and-chaser. In a way, he is the missing link.
"For him, college is something that he aspired to since a young age," Gavin Wilkinson General Manager of the Portland Timbers and Richards' youth coach at EastSide United FC said, "and then soccer came into the picture, he found out how good it was, and it was a matter of him meshing the two together."
On January 4th, fifty-four days after playing his last collegiate game for the University of Washington, Richards became Portland's first Home Grown signing. It was naturally a significant day for a player who grew up in and around the team. When preseason arrived, though, he struggled as he commuted from Seattle to Portland. After all, he was finishing his final exams while beginning his professional soccer career.
Since then Richards has gradually worked his way into Spencer's short-term plans as a regular in the team's game-day roster. Though he has yet to make any league appearances, he has started in all six of the Timbers' reserve league matches. In six games of reserve action Richards has scored two goals and forced an own-goal off a long throw-in.
The most recent of his strikes came against Chivas USA on Monday as he put home a cross from fellow Timbers Under-23 alum, Ryan Kawulok.
It was hardly a coincidence.
“After practices Brent and I will sometimes go off with some other guys and he’ll spray a ball wide, I’ll take a touch down the line and just whip in some crosses where he can work on finishing balls, even headers, and I can work on my first touch and crosses," Kawulok told Soccer365.com on June 12th.
Kawulok and Richards have only been together with the first team since January, but they've known each other for four years, three of which were spent as summer teammates on the Timbers' U-23 team. Beyond forging a solid on and off-the-field relationship, that time greased the wheels for Richards' transition into the first team.
After playing under Wilkinson at EastSide United - now known as EastSide Timbers - from U-14s through U-18s, Richards chose to play for former U.S. U-16 head coach Dean Wurzberger at the University of Washington. Wilkinson had met with Wurzberger to discuss Richards, singing his praises, especially of his work ethic and how coachable he was.
But even Wilkinson admits his youth star was not ready for the pros.
"He needed a couple of extra years to find himself, to grow in confidence. He was a very successful youth player but I don’t think he could have made the transition directly from that into a professional environment," Wilkinson said. "I think college has paid great dividends for him in that regard.”
At the time, Wilkinson viewed the tactical aspect of the game as Richards' most glaring weakness. And though he credits UW for improving Richards in that regard, it was his offseason work that bridged the gap between the collegiate and professional game.
"I believe the deficiencies [are] when somebody goes to college and there’s a limited part of the year in which they can work in a team environment and work with the coach etc.," Wilkinson said. "Brent then came and worked with us for two and a half months in our PDL program and continued to find educational opportunities relative to soccer."
The U-23s train the same way the "Big Timbers" do. Practicing before the first team arrives in Beaverton, the Premier Development League (PDL) squad utilizes pass-and-move and off-the-ball movement drills in addition to shooting, crossing and small-sided games. The first team does the same, according to Kawulok.
Eight years ago Wilkinson sat down with Richards and his parents to convince him to play join his EastSide club. At the time Richards was raw but talented and Wilkinson was still manning the Portland back line.
The meeting was a success and Richards began to feature in Wilkinson's teams. Wilkinson founded EastSide in 2001, gradually formalizing the club's association with the Timbers up through its official "adidas Timbers alliance" in February of this year. Richards always felt some connection with the parent club, he said.
Looking back it's easy to project Richards as a one-day member of the Timbers, but he didn't truly consider himself a future professional until well into his college career.
"Not 'till he started to get partway through college did he truly listen and understand that he could be a professional," Wilkinson said.
It's difficult to have someone speak about Richards without hearing a stream of compliments about his work ethic. His teammates and coaches agree that his ability to continue working, to keep kicking a ball by himself against a wall and find consistency on the field will decide his future as a professional.
As a player who once played for his own hometown club, Wilkinson expects nothing less.
"When you live in that same neighborhood you feel a little bit more desire. I think you’re willing to run through a brick wall," Wilkinson said. " ... I just feel it’s great for all concerned and all involved to have a local player on the field."
Jacob Klinger is a contributing writer to Soccer 365 where his column "Ready, Set, America" appears regularly. He also writes for No Short Corners and is currently a journalism student at Syracuse University. Jacob's love for the game goes back as far as he can remember, but was truly christened during the United States' cardiac qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002. Between classes and columns, he still plays. You can follow him on Twitter @MrJacobK or email him at email@example.com.
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