The towering figure of Diego Valeri casts a long shadow at the Portland Timbers.
From the 2015 MLS Cup and 2017 Landon Donovan MLS MVP to Best XI presented by Continental Tire honors, the club’s all-time scoring record and a place in its Ring of Honor, the Argentine maestro won just about everything on offer during his time in the Rose City, and earned even more adoration for his and his family’s heartfelt public embrace of the city and its progressive culture.
Following in the footsteps of such a profound legacy would be deeply difficult for anyone. PTFC officials have explicitly avoided setting any sort of comparison or expectation for Evander, the Brazilian Designated Player who arrived on a club-record transfer (via a fee reportedly in the range of $10 million) from Danish power FC Midtjylland last winter.
“You're never going to be able to fill those shoes. You're just not,” Portland general manager Ned Grabavoy told MLSsoccer.com this week, “and I think if you try and make that the expectation or even the project for that next talented player coming in, it's unfair in a number of ways. I don't ever think that we've looked at it that way.”
While billed as a No. 10 in a similar South American mold, Evander has indeed turned out to be very different from Valeri, as both a person and a player. He’s a homebody whose parents relocated to PDX along with him, providing home-cooked Brazilian meals and a stable support structure just as they did during his time in Denmark.
“Portland is a very calm city,” Evander told MLSsoccer.com in an extended conversation on Thursday. “I come, I train and I go home. I have all the time for me, for my family. So it's been pretty easy.”
His father Evandro, a former player in his own right, is his agent, and Leandro Borges, his physiotherapist since age 14, also lives in the household – a particularly crucial presence when Evander battled a hip issue and other nagging injuries earlier this year.
“There are so many players that come, are away from their families, and it's not easy to adjust, especially when you come to America – it’s overwhelming sometimes, you have access to so much,” noted Timbers interim head coach Miles Joseph.
“He’s such a good person, stays home a lot, family’s a big part of who he is. So he gets visits from his family, and I think when he's not, he’s probably playing video games.”
Unlocking his game
His Timbers timeline has unfolded in its own rhythm, too. In contrast to Valeri’s Newcomer of the Year campaign in 2013, Evander suffered through a choppy start to his first season, hampered by inconsistency, the aforementioned injuries and some difficulties in finding the best tactical fit for his skill set.
Yet as a tumultuous season in the Rose City plays out with a rousing – and surprising – homestretch surge, there are signs Evander might indeed turn out to be a worthy successor to ‘San Valeri,’ even if the club is avoiding that narrative.
“We would see a really, really good game and the top level of Evander and what he could look like in this league, and there were other games where maybe he went missing at times,” said Grabavoy. “Like a lot of players in this league with a high soccer IQ, they will figure out the league and then from there, I think that the challenge has become different. I think when you look at his body of work over the season, it's probably been better than he's maybe even given credit for.”
There’s something of a paradox to Evander, it turns out. He’s a skillful Brazilian with an eye for goal and an elegance of movement – yet, unlike many of those who’ve filled that No. 10 role over the decades, he wants and needs to shoulder the less-glamorous labor on the other side of the ball.
In fact, he himself refutes the connotations of the maestro role, considering himself a No. 8.
“In Denmark, most of the teams, they don't play with a No. 10. So I had to work a lot on defensive,” Evander explained. “I’m into that, I am not worried about doing the hard work. And I learned a lot when I was in Denmark, because either you play, running a lot, or you don't play. So I kind of had to put myself in a position that OK, if I want to play here, and if I want to go somewhere else, I have to do the hard work.
“You kind of dictate the rhythm of the game. So I can have the option to select if I want to rush a little bit, like make a fast pass or dribble with speed, or kind of just hold down the game and control the game, just take a breath, be a little more on the ball. So in that position I can kind of control the team a little bit, together with the other midfielders.”
Substance and style
A Brazilian youth international who shot to prominence as a key figure in the Seleção’s title run at the 2015 Under-17 South American Championship, Evander’s stock was a bit too high for the Timbers’ price range when he moved from Vasco da Gama to Midtjylland in 2018. But they kept an eye on him, and when Valeri’s DP slot opened up a few years later, Grabavoy was impressed with his evolution in the European crucible.
“I had randomly been in Denmark on a pretty cold, rainy, snowy night at one point years and years ago, when he first got there,” said Grabavoy. “So I saw him play in one of his first games there, and he's played as an out-and-out 10 in that game, and obviously as a young player was interesting at the time. But then as he sort of popped back on our radar going back into last season, you could see that his game had changed. There was more structure to it, he was being used in a different way within their system.”
The easy grace with which he covers ground can be deceiving, sometimes giving the impression of a stereotypically mercurial creator. Yet Joseph says the hard data shows otherwise.
“You know, you look at our monitoring system after the game from the performance coaches, he's always one of the guys that works the most,” said the interim head coach, a longtime assistant under Giovanni Savarese who has overseen a dramatic revival since PTFC made the difficult decision to dismiss Savarese, the winningest coach in club history, in August.
“So he does track back and defend, he's always in shape. Ball turns over, he will get back and defend. So it's an interesting one because with the eye test, you're like, ‘Oh, he’s floating around;’ you don't see him sprinting all over the place. But he's in really good positions and he's a really intelligent player, and he's always thinking ahead. So I think that for me is the thing that stands out for me with him, his ability to kind of see ahead of it a little bit with the build-ups and the final third.”
New coach, new role
The combination of Evander finding his form and Joseph opening up Portland’s tactics to take a more aggressive, assertive approach has sparked a dramatic turnaround. The Timbers are 5W-1L-1D since Savarese’s departure, vaulting from 12th place in the Western Conference to seventh, and a few more positive results in their final regular-season matches could even earn them home-field advantage in the first round of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
He’s now up to nine goals – most of them highlight-reel caliber – and four assists in 25 league matches, plus another two goals in Leagues Cup, and PTFC’s leadership believes that’s just the beginning.
“He needs to get the ball on the rotation, running forward with it,” said Joseph, “so we've tried to set him up for success that way, him either sliding out a little bit wider to receive the ball and drive inside, or on the rotation on top of the box or in the build to have a little bit of freedom and slide guys outside or away from him a little bit to open up the pockets for him a little bit more.
“He's really found some terrific spaces and when he finds those spaces, he’s pretty electric when he gets on the ball and some of the things that he can do on the ball, whether it's a free kick or a slip pass, or just coming inside and hitting one from 20 yards out. He has the package.”
Evander uses the word ‘adapt’ repeatedly to explain his slow, steady ascension from the dark periods of his injury woes to his current clip.
“We've been working to find the right spot for me, the right spot on the pitch and also for the team,” he said. “Me and Miles, also with Gio before, we've been working on trying to put myself in a position more like as a No. 8 with the freedom – of course with the role to defend, and more freedom when you have the ball offensively … I think we've been we've been improving together.
“I'm smarter now. I'm ready for everything that's going to happen in the league,” he added. “We've been lucky as well, which is good. The time has changed. So I think it's time for us to enjoy and take this moment, take as much as many points we can from this moment. Because we are living a good moment right now.”