Jeremy Ebobisse - Portland Timbers - September 25, 2019

PORTLAND — With the departure of Brian Fernandez, the Portland Timbers found themselves with a hole in a vital position this offseason.

Jeremy Ebobisse was the only forward on the roster, and even with additions to the club's attack in Yimmi Chara and Cristhian Paredes and the re-signing of club legend Diego Valeri, questions remained about whether they had enough firepower at the striker spot.

Portland made it a priority to add depth at the position. Now, with the arrivals of Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Felipe Mora, the Timbers feel confident that the three strikers, including Ebobisse, can find ways to coexist and be effective.

In their opening preseason friendly against the Vancouver Whitecaps as part of a four-team tournament on Sunday, viewers got an extended look at one of the options. With Ebobisse slowly coming back from a meniscus tear suffered at U-23 camp for the US men's national team, Mora, who's on a season-long loan from Pumas UNAM, where he had 14 goals in 40 appearances with the Liga MX squad, got the start up front.

While earning most of the playing time on Sunday, Mora finished with no goals and only one shot attempt, a bicycle kick in the 10th minute that hit a wall of Vancouver players. Yet he made an impact when drawing a penalty kick that led to a goal for Valeri, the first one for the Timbers at Providence Park in 2020.

Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese felt overall that Mora showed the value he can bring to the club.

“I think he had a good match,” Savarese said. “I think we could see his qualities today, the way he’s able to turn, the way he’s able to link up in sync with Seba [Blanco], Yimmi, and Valeri, how clever he is to be able to find good spaces, the way he found the PK, he has a lot of quality.”

Ebobisse, who is still working his way back from injury but checked in at the 77th minute, was similarly impressed by Mora and envisioned how both of their games could fit together.

“I like the way he floats around,” Ebobisse said. “He picks up different spaces than a regular target striker might, and as another forward coming into the lineup with him that’ll just give me a reference point to know ‘Okay if he’s on the opposite side of the field all I have to do is get it, turn, and he’s going to be one-on-one.’”

The only question mark currently is Niezgoda. The Polish striker showed he’s plenty capable of scoring back with Legia Warsaw, where he had 29 goals in 62 appearances.

Right now, he’s also working to get back to full strength after undergoing an ablation procedure on Jan. 30, with a timetable for his return going up to three weeks. Savarese said that while he can’t say for sure, he doesn’t expect Niezgoda to play in the current preseason tournament, which runs through next Saturday.

“My guess is no,” Savarese said. “But we never know. He’s really working well. He’s getting stronger day-by-day. He can’t wait to start playing because he’s eager to play."

Scoring at the forward spot has been a struggle for Portland in recent seasons. The Timbers haven’t had a forward cross the 15 goal threshold since 2016, when Fanendo Adi had 16. Valeri was the last Timber to surpass that mark when he scored 21 goals during his MVP season in 2017. 

The leap forward from Ebobisse in 2019, however, was a good sign. He had a career-high 11 goals in 25 appearances last season for the Timbers and showed his flexibility playing the winger spot with Fernandez at the forward. While he knows playing time will be tougher to come by, he’s up for the challenge.

“It’s our job to make the decision as hard as possible on the coach and to play our hearts out in training and games,” Ebobisse said. “And then if we’re lucky enough to be on the field together then we have to play well together to show we belong on the field as a three, as a two, however creative we have to get it. It’s exciting. You can look at it as a challenge, but you can also look at it as an opportunity.”

While Savarese acknowledges that finding equal playing time for all three players will be difficult, he believes everyone plays to each other’s strengths well enough that they should be able to make it work. Savarese also acknowledged the possibility of more two-forward formations this season to ensure everyone’s talents are best used.

“Definitely I think that’s a possibility,” Savarese said. “It’s going to be difficult decision for me because they are three competitive players and at the end of the day I think they can also have some moments to play together...we have flexibility tactically, and that’s a good thing that we have on our team.”