Outspoken up top: Timbers' Ebobisse on hunger, privilege and MLS Cup run

ATLANTA – “Play your kids,” goes the mantra in certain American soccer circles, that now-familiar exhortation to MLS coaches to give young talent, particularly the Homegrown sort, a chance in a league increasingly driven by Designated Players, TAM and various other high-caliber imported firepower.

You could say that Giovanni Savarese has done exactly that with Jeremy Ebobisse, and it’s helped take the Portland Timbers to the brink of 2018 MLS Cup glory.

But it’s nowhere near that simple.

A highly-rated US youth international snared by the Timbers with the No. 4 pick in the 2017 SuperDraft, the Maryland native was undoubtedly talented when he began his tutelage under Savarese – himself an expert striker in the league’s earliest years – at the start of this season. But Ebobisse was buried well down Portland’s depth chart behind internationals Fanendo Adi and Samuel Armenteros, relegating him to USL action with Timbers 2. After logging 317 minutes in his rookie season, this year he didn’t set foot in an MLS match until June 24, an eight-minute cameo in a 1-1 draw at Atlanta United, and didn’t earn his first start until Sept. 8.

Fast-forward a few months, and Ebobisse is the likely starter in Saturday’s MLS Cup final vs. those same Five Stripes (8 pm ET | FOX, UniMás; TSN, TVAS), having started all five of Portland’s postseason games, posting a goal and an assist along the way. Clever, hard-working, selfless, he’s become a perfect foil for creative dynamos Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco.

“It’s been a long year, ups and downs. But it’s been really exciting to be a part of, and everyone who’s been a part of this journey will say the same thing,” Ebobisse told reporters at the Timbers’ training session on Thursday.

“Regardless of where you are, whether it’s in this country or another country, you’re going to have to fight for your spot. No one’s going to give you anything. And maybe that’s something that I had to learn throughout last year and early on this year. But it’s made me hungrier, definitely, and I think it’s made me a better, stronger player mentally. And I think it’s shown in the last few months.”

How did he get here? It took months on end of relentless grinding in training sessions – including post-practice work with Savarese on the finer points of the No. 9 role – and some clutch performances when he finally got his chance, starting with a well-taken goal in a U.S. Open Cup win over the San Jose Earthquakes in early June.

“Naturally, whenever you have a new coach and you’re an unproven player, a new professional, you’re going to have to show a little more than some of the other guys who have been around and are more known quantities,” said the soft-spoken 21-year-old known as “Jebo” around his squad.

“I would say after the Open Cup game against San Jose, that proved a little more pivotal than other moments, because it was the first time I was in an MLS-caliber game, and San Jose playing a strong side as well. I scored and we got an important win and the stars were able to rest that game, so I think that was really the beginning of [Savarese] knowing that I could be called on to step up whenever he needed it.”

On Savarese’s teams, at least, the aforementioned kids have to prove themselves worthy of every second of match action.

“He’s worked very hard to deserve the opportunity to be able to play, to start. And once he had the opportunity, he took advantage of it,” said Savarese in his press conference on Thursday. “So he put a case for himself. And I think he’s an example to a lot of young American players in the league who are sometimes getting credit more for their potential than for what they have done.

“And then he brings so many different qualities; he’s a good player, he’s a player that has good technical abilities, he’s a player that can hold the ball. He’s a player that can give you some different ways for you to play … He has understood what is his role.”

Equally as intriguing as his growth into a dependable pro is Ebobisse’s commitment to community service, activism and social justice. Most youngsters in his situation tend to keep a low profile, avoiding any sort of exposure that might complicate their on-field ambitions.

But a set of experiences during his two years at Duke University – where black students were taunted with racial slurs and a noose was found hanging from a tree on campus, among other incidents – convinced him that he needed to speak out.

“I had to open my eyes a little bit,” he explained. “I found myself in a position where I was privileged and I was protected from a lot of things, but as I ventured out of my little bubbles I realized that it was all still out there, obviously. And I knew it was out there but I figured, let me just go about my own daily life.

“At the same time, going to the National African-American History Museum in D.C. opened my eyes as well, to some of those exhibits. From then on I just decided that if I was going to have this big platform, and hopefully it’s going to keep getting bigger, I was going to take advantage of it.”

Ebobisse has built a reputation for thoughtful, provocative conversations about race, politics and culture on social media and other channels, an approach he says the Timbers have supported via podcast and community-outreach appearances.

“In general it’s pretty positive feedback,” he said “Even if people don’t necessarily agree with me on whatever I might be talking about, I think everyone appreciates that I have an opinion, and for the most part it’s informed.”

As he works to nurture his prodigious potential on the pitch, Savarese leaves Ebobisse be to pursue those passions.

“Nothing would surprise me of Jebo,” he said. “He’s a great human being and a smart player.”