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What’s next for Portland Timbers’ Russell Cicerone?

A league-wide emphasis on Combine results hurt Cicerone, but he’s a pro now

MSOC Cicerone UBC

Russell Cicerone’s days in Buffalo are officially over. Of course, he played his last minute for the Bulls some weeks ago, but the coming and going of the MLS SuperDraft iced it: Cicerone is now a part of the 2015 MLS Champion Portland Timbers.

Long projected to go between the late first and mid-second rounds, Russ fell quickly after a middling combine performance that apparently nullified his form in winning the 2015 MAC Player of the Year award and helping to carry the PDL Michigan Bucks to a North American Championship in the summer of 2016.

All that said, Russ is now with Portland, his immediate future uncertain. The Timbers already have a good amount invested in their attacking group: Two North Americans with international experience in Darlington Nagbe and Darren Mattocks, Duke’s Jeremy Ebobisse from the top of this draft class, Jack McInerny, who has lost a step from his top form a few years ago in Philadelphia, but has still scored 19 goals in his last three years, and Nigerian Fernando Adi, one of Portland’s ‘Designated Players,’ effectively high-priced roster spots that don’t count against the salary cap. Ebobisse in particular is a riser, recently invited to the US U-20 January camp.

Worse yet, the Timbers official release announcing Cicerone’s selection misidentifies the MAC as the “Mid-Atlantic Conference.” So that’s no good.

Where could he end up?

The consensus should be that Cicerone is better with the ball on his foot in game action and in fluid space on the pitch than he is in a sterile setting like the combine, that he has what I like to call “sports speed” instead of straight-line speed, and that Stu Riddle’s risk-averse tactics when UB faced teams like Akron hampered his output in those high-profile matches as much as the Zips themselves did. We should certainly expect him to outperform his draft expectations, but if he can’t perform well enough to claim regular MLS minutes, it’s likely that Portland will find another place for him where he can get regular time.

Within the Timbers system, that would mean Timbers 2 (T2) in the USL. It’s not a clean analogue to Major League Baseball’s hierarchy, but it’s close. Unfortunately (from my perspective), T2 hasn’t enjoyed the same recent success as the big club, finishing seventh and eighth (of roughly 14, though the number is fluid year-to-year) in the Western Conference each of their first two seasons. A small bonus there is that the USL looks to be stronger next year than in the past. Traditionally seen as the third tier in the US Soccer pyramid, the league has capitalized on instability within the NASL to rise to “Division 2” status, effectively putting it on par with the NASL. That could be a whole post in itself, so just know that time with the Timbers farm club will provide stronger competition and experience than it may have in years past.

The Timbers could also opt to loan Cicerone out to another team, a transaction that could send him anywhere while remaining part of the Portland organization. The possibilities are frankly too broad to speculate.

Where have third- and fourth-round picks ended up the last few years?

All of Portland’s third- and fourth- round draft picks the last three years have made their way to T2 or (before T2 was founded), the USL’s Sacramento Republic. The results since have been mixed. Two have gotten cups of coffee with the big club, several still play for T2, at least one appears to be out of soccer, and one has moved to the Danish league. Hardly much success.

More broadly, the collective hivemind at /r/MLS on Reddit is openly questioning the need for a fourth round, and the list of memorable players from that range isn’t blowing anyone away.

Bottom Line

Translation: Even if Russ well outperforms his draft spot, he’s got a long way to go. He’s likely to spend this coming year in the USL and has a logjam of attacking talent in front of him at Portland. Having only really watched USMNT and MLS-level soccer other than UB the last few years, it’s hard for me to say how the versatility Cicerone showed in Buffalo’s lineup compares to other draft prospects, or if I should be taking a longer look at Portland’s midfield depth as well. Commenters at Stumptown Footy, Portland’s SB Nation blog, are entertaining the possibility that Russ could play on the wing.

The Timbers’ preseason camp opens up this coming Monday, so we should start getting feedback quickly over a month of preseason matches before the MLS season opens up the first week of March.