BEAVERTON, Ore. – Gastón Fernández has been known as “La Gata” (the cat) since his days playing youth soccer in Argentina.
But after just four months and eight games with the Portland Timbers, he might as well be known as “The Savior.” Because while the Timbers' winless start to the 2014 season has surely been a disappointment, if not for Fernández’s team-leading three goals – all equalizers, two of which came late in games – it could have been a whole lot worse.
“Right now, with Gastón’s ability to finish and our team’s inability, at times, to finish this year, it makes sense to have him on the field,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said Wednesday at the team training facility, the team’s first session since returning from Houston. “Because, like I said, when the ball falls to him and he gets himself in a spot to score he’s a guy that can score.”
True to his original nickname, Fernández has been very cat-like in his ability to pounce on opportunities seemingly out of nowhere.
His goal against Houston fell to him off a deflection in the box. And his late equalizers in the season opener against the Philadelphia Union and in Week 2 against the Chicago Fire also were very opportunistic and very welcomed turn of events for a team struggling to find that decisive final touch.
“I just think he has quality when the ball falls to him,” Porter said. “That’s why we started him. We knew that when the ball would fall to him and we knew when he would be in a position to score he would score, and he did. I think you saw what we thought we’d see out of him.”
Finding the exact right spot for one of Portland’s signature offseason acquisitions, especially considering the loss of target forward Ryan Johnson, has been the biggest issue with Fernández, Porter said.
The 30-year-old has mostly played as a “second forward” throughout his career in the top leagues of Argentina and Mexico, but the Timbers need him to be a more traditional No. 9 to play behind outside forwards Darlington Nagbe, Kalif Alhassan, Steve Zakuani and Rodney Wallace, when the Costa Rican returns from injury.
But Porter has also experimented using Fernández outside with fellow Argentine Maximiliano Urruti up top.
“He’s a bit of a nine-and-a-half,” Porter said. “He’s a good player, and that’s sometimes the challenge in putting a team together, putting your best players on the field but putting them on the field in a way where they fit together.”
It also resulted in some time on the bench for Fernández. After starting the first four games of the season, he was an unused sub in the Timbers’ 4-4 draw against the Seattle Sounders on April 5 and came off the bench in the next two games before returning to the XI against Houston.
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“I don’t feel like there has been a difficult transition or anything along those lines,” Fernández told MLSsoccer.com through a translator. “I’m just ready to be able to participate in whatever role the team needs me.”
“From the first time that I came here I’ve always felt very comfortable with the system that Caleb plays, and I feel very comfortable and very happy with whatever role I’ve been asked to play,” Fernández said.
“And that will continue.”
What will also continue in the immediate future, Porter said, is Fernández’s presence up top.
“Right now we see him playing that nine,” Porter said.
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.