By JOSE M. ROMERO
The Portland Timbers have their first four MLS players signed and in the books as the fledgling franchise's original quartet.
Timbers technical director Gavin Wilkinson introduced forward Bright Dike, midfield wing Ryan Pore, goalkeeper Steve Cronin and a surprise – former Austin Aztex forward Eddie Johnson – to the public and media in Portland Tuesday morning.
Wilkinson and coach John Spencer wasted little time in signing the Timbers' first players. The USSF Division 2 playoffs ended for the Timbers only nine days ago.
Wilkinson said he plans for the team to acquire 28 to 30 players, including Tuesday's four, through next month's expansion draft, the MLS Superdraft, international signings and allocation. He also said the Timbers expect to sign two more players from the USSF-2 Timbers, a midfielder and a central defender.
That could mean defender Mamadou "Futty" Danso is in the team's plans. Danso, 27, was recently called in by the Gambian national team for Africa Cup of Nations qualifying games. He was regarded by many as Portland's best defender in his two seasons with the lower-division team.
The midfielder figures to be Kalif Alhassan, a native of Ghana who just turned 20 years old. He was on Ghana's U-20 national team and signed with the USSF-2 Timbers in August.
Dike, 23, spent the entire season in Portland and played in 23 regular-season games. The 2010 first-round pick of the Columbus Crew out of Notre Dame landed in the Rose City and shined, scoring 10 goals in league games, plus four more in U.S. Open Cup matches and 15 in all competition.
Columbus relinquished its MLS rights to Dike for the 2011 season when he signed with the Timbers.
"This has definitely been a blessing in disguise," Dike said of coming to Oregon. "I got so much more experience that was so invaluable."
Pore led USSF-2 in goals with 15 goals in league play. He has MLS experience as the 16th overall pick in the 2005 Superdraft by Kansas City, and spent four seasons with the Wizards (2005-2008). Pore was a lower-division Timber the past two seasons after getting a tryout with the Seattle Sounders in 2009.
"When I did get released by Kansas City it was a difficult time for me," Pore said. "I needed to get to an organization where I was going to play every day. It's all about confidence scoring goals. I'm confident in my abilities that it's going to translate to the next level."
Cronin, a veteran goalkeeper, was the 10th overall pick in the 2004 Superdraft and played in 30 games with the L.A. Galaxy from 2005 to 2008. He was the 2009 USL First Division Goalkeeper of the Year. He had 12 shutouts in 28 games this past season.
"He's another one that's going to be a valuable member to the squad next year," Spencer said of Cronin.
Johnson, a 26-year-old native of England, scored 23 goals in 133 matches as a pro in Europe, starting his career at age 17 in the Manchester United youth system. He caught Spencer's eye when Spencer was a Houston Dynamo assistant, and the Dynamo faced Johnson's Aztex in a preseason match in 2009. Johnson finished behind Pore in scoring in USSF-2 this season, with 14 goals in 26 games.
Johnson said he and his Austin teammates looked forward to playing Portland at raucous PGE Park, which is now being renovated for MLS play next spring. He was loaned to Austin by the Timbers and therefore is not an allocation selection.
"Next year it's only going to be bigger and more exciting. I just can't wait to get started," he said.
What do you think of these signings? Impressed with the collection of forwards Portland has put together? Think Cronin can be one of the better goalkeepers in MLS?