PORTLAND, Ore. – Whatever the Portland Timbers are paying Gaston Fernandez, he’s certainly earned his paycheck the past two weeks.
Two late goals by the Argentine forward, who is in his debut MLS season after being acquired in the offseason, have pulled the Timbers back from the brink of potentially losing the first two games of the season. His latest effort was a rebound tap-in in the 79th minute Sunday afternoon at Providence Park that gave the Timbers a 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire, a worthy encore to his stoppage-time equalizer on a corner-kick header last week in a draw of the same score line with the Philadelphia Union (WATCH IT HERE).
Equal part being in the right place and the right time and equal part tenacity, Timbers head coach Caleb Porter is certainly glad to have him.
“I thought for large periods of the game he took the game over, and he was one of the best players on the field I thought,” Porter said in his postgame comments. “He deserved to score the goal. He’s one of these guys who gets himself in good spots. He’s not the biggest, but he’s smart and he gets himself around the goal. Goal scorers, the ball seems to find them. And that’s twice now where the ball has found him in good spots.”
On Sunday he was perfectly positioned to capitalize on a rebound after a Darlington Nagbe blast that Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson was unable to control. But only because a late-game switch in formation saw Fernandez, who started the game on the left wing, moved to the striker position in place of Maximiliano Urruti, who was subbed off in favor of Steve Zakuani in the 61st minute.
“Being able to play the No. 9 position has given me the opportunity to actually be there when the ball came this way off Darlington,” Fernandez said of his goal through a translator. "It’s always good to be able to score, it feels good.”
“I think anywhere you use him he’s going to pop up, he’s going to read defenses, he’s going to find gaps and seams,” Porter said of Fernandez. “He gets in what I call hard spots in between layers and in between seams. He knows how to operate in there. He has a great picture in terms of how he sees the game.”
Porter also rotated Fernandez into the No. 10 role earlier in the game, a spot usually manned by fellow countryman Diego Valeri.
“I want to be useful wherever the coach puts me,” Fernandez said after the match.
How exactly Fernandez fits into the Timbers four-pronged attack in Porter’s 4-3-3 formation has led to some early adjustments and tinkering. And it hasn’t always paid off; Portland ultimately has created 36 attempts on goal in their first two games, but only come away with two goals.
“A lot of people are forgetting that he’s only been in this country a couple of months,” Porter said. “And it takes guys a lot of times a year, or two, to settle in and get comfortable in this league.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.