It didn’t take long for just about everyone to wonder if the Portland Timbers’ ambitions to chase an attacking Designated Player were misguided.
The Timbers lost five of their opening six games of 2019, and it was in large part due to a back line that was hemorrhaging goals. With 17 goals conceded in just their opening six games, the Timbers had the worst defense in MLS and looked to be in desperate need of reinforcements.
But right around the time the Timbers started to right the ship and Giovanni Savarese found a way to stop the bleeding, the rumors cropped up: the Timbers were in talks to sign Liga MX goal-scorer Brian Fernandez for a record transfer fee.
The Timbers first began discussions with Fernandez’s club, Necaxa, in February. On Monday, he arrived in Portland after the Timbers paid a large enough transfer fee – a Timbers record – to trigger a release clause.
“The start of the season didn’t go according to plan, but the good news is we didn’t let that affect the timeline or the judgement of the decision,” Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson said Monday about Fernandez’s signing.
The reason the Timbers have been chasing a goal-scorer has little to do with the start of 2019 and everything to do with 2018 as a whole. Here is how the top of the goal-scoring chart looked last year:
|14||Diego Valeri, DP playmaking midfielder.|
|13||Sebastian Blanco, DP left winger.|
|8||Samuel Armenteros, striker. No longer a Timber.|
|5||Larrys Mabiala, defender.|
|3||Fanendo Adi, DP striker. No longer a Timber.|
|3||David Guzman, midfielder. No longer a Timber.|
|3||Jeremy Ebobisse, striker.|
For the Timbers to score the goals they needed to make last year’s MLS Cup, Diego Valeri, who recently turned 33, had to do the bulk of the work. But the signs were already there last season: Valeri, as he ages further out of his prime, is slowing down. The playmaker struggled for stretches last year until he turned it on in the playoffs, but the Timbers can’t simply bank on that again.
What 24-year-old Fernandez brings is an opportunity to get the most out of the right side of the attack, which has been something of a black hole in terms of production.
Andy Polo, the first-choice right winger and best option on the roster, is a fine player at things like retaining possession and transitioning the ball, but he hasn’t contributed nearly enough on the scoresheet with just one goal last year. Andres Flores, who has filled in while Polo has been injured, has the same shortcomings.
Fernandez has played primarily as a right winger, and that’s there he has been sensational for Necaxa. He has 18 goals in 32 appearances for Necaxa this season, which is about .70 goals per game.
But it’s not a good recent spell of form for the Argentine. Going back through his entire playing history, Fernandez’s career scoring rate is about .59 goals per 90 minutes. That is roughly in line with the current scoring rate this season of Wayne Rooney, who is fourth in the MLS Golden Boot race.
But many of Fernandez’s goals didn’t just come from the right wing – he can play as a center striker and across the attacking line, which is why the Timbers were willing to pay reportedly as much as eight figures for him.
“He’s a threat offensively,” Savarese said Monday. “He’s a player who’s constantly trying to unbalance defenders, he’s a player who finds the goal often, and he plays different positions up top, so he has versatility, which is very important for us as well.”
That versatility means he may be in direct competition with Jeremy Ebobisse, the 22-year-old draft product who has been starting up top as the primary striker for the Timbers.
Ebobisse brings up the rear of that goal-scoring chart from last year, but that’s partly because he didn’t get a single minute until August. Once he finally did play, he showed quality off the ball and in combining with the players around him, but goals were still harder to come by. This season though, he has already surpassed his goal total last year, and two of his four goals are game-winners.
Now, however, Ebobisse will have to fight to maintain his spot.
“We have more competition now and other players need show more and continue to grow because now there is more demand on those positions,” Savarese said. “It’s a good balance to have (Fernandez) play with other players but also in the same moment can take the place of other players if they’re not performing. That makes the players much better.”
Wilkinson agreed that the competition with Ebobisse in particular is a positive, and he added that whether Ebobisse’s playing time changes upon Fernandez’s arrival will be performance-based.
“If Gio and I went back in time, we would’ve liked to have more competition for Jeremy,” Wilkinson said. “That way we can test him mentally and also hold him accountable to a higher standard. Bringing in another player like Brian starts to drive the accountability for every single player.”
In preseason, long before the Timbers landed on Fernandez as a target, Wilkinson vowed the Timbers wouldn’t block Ebobisse’s development – both because they believe he can help the club win, and also because they view him as an asset they could potentially sell. But Fernandez’s ability to play in Ebobisse’s role clearly means Ebobisse is at risk of losing his job.
Speaking to Pro Soccer USA in February about Wilkinson’s comments that the club wanted a versatile attacker who could play striker, Ebobisse said he was ready to fight for his spot.
“Whatever happens in the window, the competition will be fierce and that’s something that motivates me because I’ve been waiting on the sidelines, out of the 18, for what I consider to be a long time. I don’t want to let go of this.”
“This season, I’m starting from scratch again – whatever positives will be quickly forgotten,” Ebobisse added. “It’s ‘what you have you done for me lately?’ ”
Lately, though, Fernandez has had a bit of personal trouble, and if there is any reason to worry about whether Fernandez will be another Lucas Melano-level bust, it won’t come from looking at his stats or highlight reels. Rather, it’s the off-the-field incidents that have dotted his past that may raise concerns.
In 2015, he was hit with a two-year ban after testing positive twice for having cocaine in his system. (In his return match from that suspension for Racing Club, he scored two minutes after coming on as a substitute in the 87th minute.)
Then, as rumors of his transfer to Portland swirled, he got hit with a three-game ban in Liga MX for spitting at a fan.
Wilkinson charitably noted that Fernandez only successfully spit at the wall, not the fan he was arguing with, but the incident has allowed the Timbers to quickly probe Fernandez’s attitude and assess how the club can help him succeed beforehand.
.@TimbersFC DP target Brain Fernández may have played his last game in Liga MX..
Unjustly red carded vs Monterrey, then reacts vs fan.
— herculez gomez (@herculezg) April 29, 2019
“I’d much rather know the worst about every single player prior to signing them than find out after the fact,” Wilkinson said. “I think this was a benefit in many ways because it brought out many topics that we were able to talk about. He’s been very honest and open, and he’s owned his past.”
For the Timbers, whether it comes to keeping Fernandez out of trouble or ensuring Fernandez can perform as expected on the field, the common refrain Monday was providing support and helping Fernandez acclimate to life in Portland and playing in MLS.
When Melano joined the Timbers in 2015, he was a record signing, but he never reached the club’s high expectations, flubbing golden scoring chances as much as he scored actual goals. Last year, after he returned from a couple of loan stints in Argentina, there was hope within the club that Melano would return to MLS better acclimated to the league.
Melano shared those hopes too, saying during playoffs: “To be in another country, my first time to play in another country, speaking another language – too many new things for me. But now, I knew the league, I knew team, I knew the city and I’m older – I have experience. I needed time to adapt to the change.”
But whatever limited success Melano found in his home country of Argentina was never replicated in Portland, and now the Timbers don’t want a repeat with the man who is taking over Melano’s former DP spot.
That may explain why the Timbers had to pay so much for Fernandez, a reported transfer fee of around $10 million. Fernandez’s scoring record is indisputable and he has a clear demonstrated history of scoring wherever he plays – he is not a speculative signing based on potential to the degree Melano’s signing was. The Timbers wanted a sure thing, and owner Merritt Paulson paid for it.
Whether Fernandez will be a star in MLS still remains to be seen. But the acquisition of a young, proven player like Fernandez, who at 24 could be valuable for years to come, is an ambitious move from the Timbers. The Timbers won’t be making a regular habit of spending this kind of money on players, but with a stadium expansion to be finished this year, the Timbers are clearly conscious of keeping up with the rest of MLS.
“This is not something that we will continue to expect to make on a yearly basis,” Wilkinson said. “There has been a massive investment from the ownership in acquiring this player.
“We’ve added 4,000 seats to the stadium – there’s more fans we have to entertain. We wanted to make sure the team is best positioned to make sure that we represent the city in the way it should be and put us in the best position to climb up the table.”