MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Portland Timbers look to sign another center back for 2021 season

Portland Timbers - goal celebration

The Portland Timbers acted swiftly this offseason, checking off the overwhelming majority of boxes on their to-do list by the time preseason got underway.

They accumulated a significant amount of General Allocation Money in trades of center back Julio Cascante and left backs Marco Farfan and Jorge Villafana, as well as other assets, to clear a path to acquire fullbacks Claudio Bravo and Josecarlos Van Rankin. They also re-acquired forward Felipe Mora on a permanent deal after a successful season on loan. Portland returned most of their sparkling attack, too, while Designated Players Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda are both recovering from ACL tears. 

Amid those moving parts, the Timbers still identify center back as another area of need.

“It’s a constant topic of conversation: We have four center backs, which is reasonable. … We do believe we need to add one more player in that position," president and general manager Gavin Wilkinson told media on a virtual press conference. "It’s not a situation we feel overly rushed, but we need to get it right. We have a number of options. We’re continuing to look and explore other options.”

Homegrown center back Zac McGraw has impressed during training, while Dario Zuparic, Larrys Mabiala and Bill Tuiloma are likely to receive the bulk of available minutes. But that won't dissuade the club from adding another option in central defense. 

“What we’re looking at is a calculated risk: Do we add short-term and take a player on loan, or do we wait until the summer window when player acquisition around the world is a little easier?" Wilkinson posed. 

Portland remain likely to add another left back, as head coach Gio Savarese noted several players are training with the team and could be signed for the position. Wilkinson said that midfielder Blake Bodily will get some reps at left back during training, too.

“The most important part is to understand we’re very content with the four center backs we have," Savarese said. "We trust them very much. … We’re not in any rush, we want to get it right.”

Olympic snubs? 

With the United States off to Olympic qualifying, the Timbers surprisingly won't have any players on the roster. 

It was expected at least one of forward Jeremy Ebobisse or midfielder Eryk Williamson — if not both — would be selected to the final 20-man roster for the Concacaf tournament in Mexico later this month, but neither got picked. Ebobisse wasn't called into a 31-man camp before the final roster was selected, either. 

“This is something we’re very passionate about," Wilkinson said. "Being in a position to select players is never easy, we’re fully supportive of the US national team, but we love our players. We love Jeremy and Eryk, so we were shocked. Our opinion of the players is higher than others – we were shocked.”

Ebobisse recorded 19 goals and three assists over the last two seasons (52 appearances, 36 starts). He can play through the center or on the wing. Williamson enjoyed a breakout 2020 campaign, going from an afterthought in Portland's midfield depth chart to an integral piece to the team's success. Both have caps with the US U-23 team. Ebobisse previously made his senior USMNT debut in January 2019. 

“It’s always difficult to select, and everyone has a different point of view, but I believe Jeremy and Eryk have the qualities to help the national team," Savarese said. "We’ll never question the decisions of the coaches or the selection process, but we are very much in knowledge of what these two players are capable of doing. They do it on a constant basis for us. That doesn’t mean they don’t have to improve, but they’re very important players. We see the talent, the capabilities, so we were surprised.”

Costa Rica called up midfielder Marvin Loria for qualifying, while Bravo featured for Argentina at South American qualifying. They made the Olympics and Bravo is expected to be called into the squad.