With question marks attached to all three of their Designated Players, which included club legend Diego Valeri inching toward the exit door while club-record signing Brian Fernandez was unavailable for that playoff loss after entering MLS’ Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health (“SABH”) Program, the attack was headed for another makeover.
“I think it has to be up there as the craziest offseason in my tenure," Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. "Every year it seems to get harder, every year it seems to be more complicated. And we’re still not finished."
“It has been ridiculous, mate," he added with a sigh.
Portland handed winger Sebastian Blanco a contract extension, were able to agree to a new deal with Valeri (below the DP threshold) and terminated the contract of Fernandez.
The club acquired winger Yimmi Chara from Atletico Mineiro to fill their second DP slot while re-commencing their search for another big-money forward ahead of the 2020 season, just as they did in 2019.
“With what Brian gave us on the field, it’s a massive loss," Wilkinson said. "... (His departure) left us with a tough void to fill."
So, the Timbers were back to the whiteboard trying to fill that void.
They returned to their shortlist from the season prior and other forwards they've kept tabs on for a few years, figured out who might fit in their budget, and funneled the list of names down once more. The club eventually honed in on Jaroslaw Niezgoda, a 24-year-old Polish forward from Legia Warsaw.
"There’s a constant list that’s evolving, there’s five or six players always that we keep an eye on," Wilkinson said. "Niezgoda has been on our boards for close to two years now. When you revisit: Okay, here’s where we’re at, for the price point we’re in, is there a better player? He made it to a shortlist for three or four, then you have to make a decision considering the obvious factors.”
Niezgoda had 14 goals and two assists with Legia Warsaw before his move to Portland. He was a regular goalscorer in the Polish league across stints with multiple teams thus far.
“Jarek is capable of playing as a single No. 9 or as a two, and he’s even played out wide in the past. Balancing his characteristics with Jeremy, we feel very good about that position. He’s a goal scorer, comfortable with both feet. Good size, good athleticism and can finish in a variety of ways. He attacks the ball. With his feet, he’s very quick, gets the ball off his foot very quickly and he’s an honest, hard-working player.”
Wilkinson also added that "numerous" European clubs have attempted to sign the player but haven't been able to finalize a deal over the last year and a half. He commended the club's medical staff for their work throughout his medical, which had held the deal up before the player underwent a procedure to address a heart ablation condition.
The move gives US national team forward Jeremy Ebobisse some competition. The club predominantly played a 4-2-3-1 last season, though Ebobisse's versatility still landed him 25 starts, as he was able to play as a winger.
Niezgoda, like Fernandez before him, will have the ability to play alongside Ebobisse rather than directly siphon his minutes. The move also gives Portland greater flexibility to deploy two-striker formations.
“We believe in Jeremy Ebobisse," Wilkinson said. "He’s a quality player with a big upside and he’s not the finished product, so we have to be careful not to limit his growth and minutes. We wanted to acquire a Young DP that also has an upside that Jeremy can compete with, and with a profile to change systems and tactics so they can play with one another.”
The club also are planning for Ebobisse to miss time with the United States U-23 side. Olympic qualifying begins in March and, should they qualify and Ebobisse be selected, he'd miss a handful of games over the summer.
Wilkinson revealed that the club are in negotiations with Ebobisse over a new contract so he can focus on the Timbers and the USMNT.
“The club’s hope is to extend Ebobisse’s contract," Wilkinson said. "There’s been tremendous communication on both sides, lot of respect on both sides. There’s been healthy dialogue, but is hasn’t been finalized yet."
Elsewhere in transfers, the club aren't done. They will add a third forward — reported to be Pumas UNAM's Felipe Mora’s on loan — while continuing to work to permanently acquire Cristhian Paredes from Club América, who was on loan with the Timbers for the last two seasons.
“We’re looking into acquiring Cristhian Paredes and figuring out how to go about it," Wilkinson said. "He has a big upside and he’s owned by a big club, it’s about making sure what we do is best for everybody involved. There are still a lot of hurdles to overcome, we’re going to remain optimistic and with the season around the corner, it’s imperative we get it sorted out.”