Contrary to what keyboard warriors and internet know-it-alls may believe, factors inside every decision in the high-stakes world of roster building across the front offices of all 24 clubs in Major League Soccer are extensive and not taken lightly.
That was true again in one of the league's latest higher profile moves this offseason, when the Portland Timbers acquired the rights to former New England Revolution center back Claude Dielna, who they subsequently signed Thursday.
“When we had the final list of candidates and we started at who made sense, with all the variables put into the master sum, Claude was the one that we chose,” Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson explained to MLSsoccer.com.
Dielna, a 31-year-old French center back with extensive experience in France and England, didn't quite live up to his Designated Player expectations with the Revs over a season-and-a-half and was deemed surplus to requirements when the club declined his contract option after the 2018 season. Sensing opportunity and fit, the Timbers sent $100,000 in General Allocation Money to New England for Dielna's rights.
The club, whose scouting network has plucked valuable first-teamers from all over the world, surely pegged central defense as a position to strengthen, no doubt fueled in part by Liam Ridgewell's exit, and set aside a lavish Target Allocation Money budget charge to address it. So, why did Dielna stand tallest from the shortlist of other options, both domestic and abroad?
"When you look at where we’re at as a club, he’s in the final stages of acquiring his green card, so he should be considered a domestic player by the start of the season," Wilkinson said. "When we started to look at what we were spending at that position, a TAM player. Then we looked at integration to the league, with us having 12 games on the road [to start the season], it made sense to try and get a player that has MLS experience.
“He’s coming in to try and win a starting spot," Wilkinson added.
The Timbers did their due diligence, considering other options in the world marketplace. Wilkinson admitted they came close to acquiring an unnamed Eastern European defender, but opted for Dielna.
"You start to develop lists, pros and cons in every area of the field," Wilkinson said. "For the other players we were looking at, there was one Eastern European player, we loved the quality and the price was doable. But you start to get into the contract length, the age of the player relative to contract length and transition timeline."
Another pillar of the decision was Dielna's one-year contract, mitigating risk and signaling to the club's young defenders that they're very much in the Timbers' plans, too.
“We have two young center backs in Julio Cascante and Bill Tuiloma that played numerous games last year and impressed us," Wilkinson. "Maybe it’s one of those two who are starting, but I think it’s best for their development to see what they’re capable of than replacing them with a long-term option that freezes them out. I would say that we put another quality player at that position to compete for the starting spot.”
In 2018, Larrys Mabiala established himself as a near ever-present constant in the middle of defense, starting 31 matches. He figures to be one of the first names on the team sheet, which helped give the Timbers even more parameters when searching for another defender.
“We were able to give it a bit more thought because Mabiala has become a constant for us, a very good performer," Wilkinson said. "So what’s a good partner for Mabiala? His first language is French, his second is English and his English is phenomenal, but with Dielna there’s English and French as well. Then with Bill Tuiloma, there’s English and French. So there’s little partnerships and chemistry and relationships on the field as well, just another part of everything."
As for the player himself, Dielna has unfinished business in the league.
“[The talks with Dielna] were very positive," Wilkinson said. "He felt he did not leave MLS on a positive note and that he had a point to prove. He had a lot of respect for this club, he had only seen the Timbers from the outside, and I think every player likes to be wanted. For him, it’s a matter of coming back to MLS and showing what he’s capable of.”
Last season, the Revolution toiled below the playoff line, eventually missing out on postseason soccer by a nine-point margin. Dielna played his last match for the club on July 21, not seeing another minute on the field over their last 13 games.
Wilkinson has a message for fans who may be skeptical.
“I would say every football environment is different," Wilkinson said. "Combination of players and staff is a unique mix. We brought him in here and we have a decent track record of signing players that had positive influences, so hopefully there’s a little bit of belief in the system and rationale behind it.”