Jake Gleeson got off to a remarkable start as a 20-year-old rookie with the Portland Timbers.
The New Zealand native and Republic FC goalie played in four of the Timbers’ first five matches during the franchise’s MLS debut season in 2011.
Gleeson, 6-foot-5, started and played all 90 minutes in three of those matches, including Portland’s first two MLS home matches, a 4-2 win over the Chicago Fire and a 3-2 win over the FC Dallas. He made 12 saves and allowed six goals in his five appearances.
Gleeson got the opportunity to play because starter Troy Perkins and backup Adin Brown were injured.
“For that week leading up to the home opener, I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep,” Gleeson said. “It was pretty exciting and something I’ll never forget. The city was electric. It was a big game we needed to win, and we did it.”
Then, like the sellout crowds at Providence Park in Portland, Ore., for every Timbers’ home match since, Gleeson became a spectator.
While Portland’s top two goalies have changed – Donovan Ricketts, 36, starts and Andrew Weber, 30, backs him up – Gleeson remains Portland’s No. 3 option
and hasn’t appeared in an MLS match in three years.
So Gleeson, 23, has no problem being in Sacramento and playing for Republic FC in third-tier USL Pro, one of four players on loan from MLS – two from the Timbers and two from the San Jose Earthquakes.
Others may view it as a demotion, but Gleeson looks at it as an opportunity.
“It’s a unique situation, being on loan,” Gleeson said. “But I’ve been in MLS four years, and I’ve only played in a handful of games. Coming here, I’m playing 90 minutes a match week in and week out. That’s something you can’t replicate in training.”
Gleeson said it’s a positive situation, too: Former MLS player Preki coaches the team, a number of players have MLS or overseas experience, and the team is supported by rabid fans, who filled Hughes Stadium to capacity (20,231) for last weekend’s home opener.
“It was pretty amazing,” Gleeson said of Saturday’s crowd for the 2-1 loss to the Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders that set a USL Pro regular-season attendance record. “I’d always get goosebumps walking out on the field in Portland, and I felt the same on Saturday. The Sacramento fans were brilliant. It was a special event for the city and for us as players.”
The only negative for Gleeson is that he was unable to play because of a right groin injury suffered in a collision with an Orange County Blues player April 12 in Irvine. But after missing the last three matches, Gleeson is expected to be ready when the Blues come to Hughes Stadium for Saturday’s rematch.
“The groin is feeling a lot better,” Gleeson said. “The training has been tough, but it’s gotten results. They’ve got a real good setup in terms of the medical staff here.”
Before his injury, Gleeson turned back two breakaway goal attempts early and had five saves in Republic FC’s season-opening 1-1 draw with the Los Angeles Galaxy II on March 29 in Carson. Then, he had four saves in a 3-1 win over the Chivas USA Reserves on April 7 in Carson.
“It’s nice having a goalie back there like Jake who can make those saves we might need,” said teammate Justin Braun, a veteran MLS player who, like Gleeson, has been sidelined by injury and missed the last two matches. “Jake came up big for us early against the Galaxy. I think the team built some energy off those stops.”
Between those matches against Galaxy II and Chivas USA Reserves, Gleeson was called up to Portland on April 5, when the Timbers played the rival Seattle Sounders. He backed up Weber while Ricketts served a suspension, but he didn’t play in the Timbers’ 4-4 draw.
“He’s a great young prospect who hasn’t played for a while, so it’s our job to get him to the next level,” Preki said. “He’s working hard, and he has a really good attitude.”
Gleeson grew up playing cricket in New Zealand, discovering soccer by happenstance when he went with friends to their tryout.
They needed a goalie for a drill, Gleeson volunteered, and a few years later he was playing for New Zealand’s under-17 World Cup team in South Korea. He also has played for New Zealand’s U-23 and national teams.
Gleeson is working with Republic FC goalkeeper trainers Simon Sheppard and Gene DuChateau and gets feedback from Timbers goalkeeper trainer Mike Toshack, who reviews video of Gleeson’s performances.
DuChateau, a longtime area goalie trainer and youth coach who played for four teams in six seasons in the North American Soccer League, is impressed by Gleeson’s upbeat attitude, wit and talent.
DuChateau also knows what it’s like to have to wait for an opportunity.
“It’s the hardest lesson to learn because you feel like you’re ready to go for it, but there’s something standing in your way,” DuChateau said. “Donovan Ricketts is one of the best goalies in MLS, but he’s 36. Jake is 23, he’s (6-foot-5), he’s a great shot stopper who’s good with his feet and communicates well.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he will be spending a lot of years as the top man in MLS.”