Portland Timbers fullbacks Chris Klute, Zarek Valentin look to pick up where departed starter Jorge Villafana left off

Chris Klute - Columbus Crew SC - Close up

BEAVERTON, Ore. – Chris Klute and Zarek Valentin may have started their careers in similar fashion, both having come up through the US youth national team ranks.

Since graduating from the U-23s, however, the paths of the two outside backs couldn’t have been more different.

Klute started his professional career with the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks before breaking into MLS with the Colorado Rapids. Valentin was drafted by now defunct Chivas USA, but spent the last three seasons in Norway with Bodo/Glimt.

Now they’ve converged with the Portland Timbers for the 2016 season, both eyeing the opportunity to take over for departed left back Jorge Villafana, the only starting spot up really up for grabs this preseason despite a number of departures and new acquisitions following their MLS Cup championship.

Klute and Valentin also have something else in common: Like Villafana, they come to Portland looking to prove themselves.

Before Villafana, also a former US youth international, developed into one of the best left backs in MLS last season, leading to his sale to Liga MX side Santos Laguna, he was an “afterthought,” as Timbers head coach Caleb Porter put it, in a trade with Chivas USA, first acquired as a backup to then-starter Michael Harrington.

“I don’t think anybody thought twice when we got him; he was kind of an afterthought in that trade, but I knew him from the U-23s, and I thought he would be a really good piece in time,” said Porter, who was the head coach for the 2012 U-23 Olympic qualifying team that included both Villafana and Valentin.

It will likely be Klute who sees the first chance to fill Villafana’s shoes.

Since a stellar season with the Rapids in 2013, that saw him record career highs in starts (30), minutes (2,696) and assists (seven) and his first senior national-team call-up, Klute has seen a decline in production, leading to a draft-day trade to Columbus Crew SC ahead of the 2015 season, which in turn left him in a backup role.

“I thought he was one of the best left backs in the league in 2013,” Porter said. “… He just never really got a run of games [with Columbus], and we were surprised that we were able to get him to be honest with you. I do think he has the ability to be one of the better left backs in the league.”

Klute brings to the table a different skill set than Villafana as a more athletic “box-to-box” players, Porter said, in the same vein as speedy Timbers right back Alvas Powell, a Jamaican international. Villafana is a more technical, positional player.

And Klute said his year in spent mostly on the bench in Columbus, with just eight starts, presented a chance for him learn off the field. He said he’s eager to jump-start his once-promising career.

“It’s definitely a positive mentally when you know your coach has full confidence in you,” Klute said of the trade that brought him to Portland. “And for me the transition will be a lot easier knowing that he’s kind of backed me up as a coach, that’s kind of what you want for all the players. It’s just security that the coach believes in you.

“I was definitely excited about it. I know once I heard I would get a new opportunity here, and I was all for it.”

Like Klute, Valentin is overjoyed to be in Portland and said the decision to return to MLS after three seasons abroad was a “no-brainer” as soon as he heard the Timbers were interested.

He and Porter go way back, having first met at the University of Akron before reuniting with the U-23s. He said that history, in addition to being reunited with former Akron teammates and good friends Darlington Nagbe and Ben Zemanski, sealed the deal.

“Everything excites me about being with the Timbers, the city, the fans, the style of living, just the general vibe of the city is something that’s attractive to me,” he said. “And once I found out that it was a little bit of a possibility, it’s just one of the places that’s hard to say no to if the opportunity comes up.”

Valentin is more similar to Villafana in style, also appealing to Porter for his versatility as a depth piece once the Timbers kick off their participation in the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League later this summer. Porter said he can play either right or left back and “in a pinch” in central defense. At Akron, Valentin played all across the backline.

In Portland’s first preseason match, a 1-0 loss Sunday to PDL side FC Tucson, Valentin started at left back while Klute continues to rehab an offseason meniscus procedure. Porter soon expects Klute to be ready to train full out.

“At this point it’s a little bit of seeing where I potentially might fit in with the guys and relationships and this and that,” Valentin said. “I can see myself playing anywhere throughout the backline. … At this point I’m just trying to fit in the group.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.