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Battle for goalkeeping job is Timbers' hot spot

04/02/03

JOHN NOLEN

Matt Napoleon calls almost every week.

Napoleon, living and working in Columbus, Ohio, retired from soccer this year after playing all but 11 minutes in goal for the Portland Timbers during their first two A-League seasons.

"Matt will call and say, 'Tell me, what's going on out there?' said Jim Brazeau, the Timbers' goalkeeper coach.

"I'll say, 'Why don't you come on out and find out?' " Brazeau said, laughing.

Napoleon is finding life away from soccer is hard at age 25.

But unless he suddenly changes his mind and returns to the Timbers, there is a hotly contested battle shaping up among players trying to fill his shoes.

In what began with more than a dozen candidates several weeks ago, four finalists were on display Tuesday when the team opened training camp for the 2003 season, which begins Thursday, May 1, when Portland plays the Seattle Sounders at PGE Park.

There was Chris Smith, who last season backed up Napoleon in Portland. And Cole Burgman, who last year played in 15 games for the Atlanta Silverbacks, another A-League team. And there were free agent rookies Brian Hill from Oregon State and Ben Meckle from the University of Puget Sound.

"I think we started with 15; these four survived the casting call," Brazeau said.

They will have company -- and soon.

Curtis Spiteri, a Timbers draft pick from the University of Portland who might be the man to beat for the job, was driving from his parents' home in San Diego and didn't arrive in time for Tuesday's first workout.

Later this week, Spiteri will be followed into camp by Ryan Wittstruck, a former Puget Sound goalkeeper, and Mike McCarthy of Gonzaga.

Spiteri has spent the past month in camp with the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer.

"He's been training in a competitive environment for the past month, and the Fire liked him," Brazeau said. "It may be that Curtis gets here and says, 'It's my job.'

"We'll see, though, just who steps in and makes the job theirs. We're certainly just not going to hand it to someone."

For Meckle, working his way through earlier Timbers tryouts to the start of training camp has been fun and exciting. He graduated from Barlow High School in Gresham in 1998, then spent two seasons at Seattle Pacific University before transferring to Puget Sound.

"I'm learning a lot, just about what it takes to be a professional, what it takes to be here at this level," Meckle said. "There's a large gap between college and this. I'm just hoping for the best."

Including goalkeepers, 26 were on hand for the first workout. Coach Bobby Howe liked what he saw.

"We're very, very pleased with the energy level, which is high," he said. "Actually, the fitness level, considering these players have been out of season for a long time, is actually very good."

Forward Fadi Afash, whose 18 goals last season tied for the A-League lead, thinks the Timbers have a lot of talent.

However, he said, "It takes time to put a group together, to make a team. Back home (in Syria), it would be like each coach would ask for three years to make a team. But here, in the U.S., it's like, 'One month you have to make a team.' It's impossible, sometimes. But you (have to) live with it."

Notes:

The oldest player on the field Tuesday was defender/midfielder Scott Benedetti, who will be 37 in November but looks sharp as he begins he third Timbers season. . . . Among the missing was Vadim Tolstolutsky, a midfielder from Vancouver who spent two years with the Timbers before retiring at age 23 to take a job in Seattle with a Russian airline, general manager Jim Taylor said. . . . Howe said possibly two more players will be brought into camp soon. "We also are negotiating for one or two others that are outside our current mix, that we know will help us," he said. . . . The Timbers will train daily at 10 a.m. at PGE Park. They also plan several scrimmages during the next few weeks. John Nolen: 503-221-8211; johnnolen@news.oregonian.com

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